Decoupled recovery of ecological communities after reclamation.
Grassland restoration is largely focused on creating plant communities that match reference conditions. However, these communities reflect only a subset of the biodiversity of grassland systems. We conducted a multi-trophic study to assess ecosystem recovery following energy development for oil and gas extraction in northern US Great Plains rangelands. We compared soil factors, plant species composition and cover, and nematode trophic structuring between reclaimed oil and gas well sites ("reclaims") that comprise a chronosequence of two-33 years since reclamation and adjacent, undeveloped rangeland at distances of 50 m and 150 m from reclaim edges. Soils and plant communities in reclaims did not match those on undeveloped rangeland even after 33 years. Reclaimed soils had higher salt concentrations and pH than undeveloped soils. Reclaims had lower overall plant cover, a greater proportion of exotic and ruderal plant cover and lower native plant species richness than undeveloped rangeland. However, nematode communities appear to have recovered following reclamation. Although total and omni-carnivorous nematode abundances differed between reclaimed well sites and undeveloped rangeland, community composition and structure did not. These findings suggest that current reclamation practices recover the functional composition of nematode communities, but not soil conditions or plant communities. Our results show that plant communities have failed to recover through reclamation: high soil salinity may create a persistent impediment to native plant growth and ecosystem recovery.