Invasive grasses: a new perfect storm for forested ecosystems?
Exotic grasses are a widespread set of invasive species that are notable for their ability to significantly alter key aspects of ecosystem function. Understanding the role and importance of these invaders in forested landscapes has been limited but is now rising, as grasses from Eurasia and Africa continue to spread through ecosystems of the Americas, Australia, and many Pacific islands, where they threaten biodiversity and alter various aspects of the fire regime. The ecological, social and economic impacts of the grass-fire cycle associated with species such as cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) have been long recognized in aridlands such as the iconic sagebrush ecosystems of the western US. However, the damaging impacts of invasive grasses in forestlands have received considerably less attention. We review literature, conceptual models, model output, and empirical evidence that indicate grass invasion in forest ecosystems may be an important yet largely under-recognized phenomenon. In combination with climate change, wildfire, and overstory management, invasive grasses could create a "perfect storm" that threatens forest resilience. Invasive grasses can be successful in forested environments or develop strongholds within forested mosaics and could provide the literal seeds for rapid change and vegetation type conversion catalyzed by wildfire or changes in climate. Although invasive grass populations may now be on the edge of forests or consist of relatively rare populations with limited spatial extent, these species may disrupt stabilizing feedbacks and disturbance regimes if a grass-fire cycle takes hold, forcing large portions of forests into alternative nonforested states. In addition, forest management actions such as thinning, prescribed fire, and fuel reduction may actually exacerbate invasive grass populations and increase the potential for further invasion, as well as broader landscape level changes through increased fire spread and frequency. Lack of understanding regarding the ecological consequences and importance of managing invasive grasses as a fuel may lead to unintended consequences and outcomes as we enter an age of novel and rapid ecological changes. This paper focuses on the contributory factors, mechanisms, and interactions that may set the stage for unexpected forest change and loss, in an effort to raise awareness about the potential damaging impact of grass invasion in forested ecosystems.