Riparian vegetation composition and diversity shows resilience following cessation of livestock grazing in northeastern Oregon, USA.
Riparian ecosystem restoration has been accomplished through exclusion of livestock using corridor fencing along hundreds of kilometers of streams in the western United States, for the benefit of riparian-obligate wildlife and endangered fishes. Yet, there are limited scientific studies that have evaluated more than short-term shifts in vegetation composition and diversity at a single location or handful of locations following grazing. We sampled riparian vegetation composition along 11-paired grazed and ungrazed (exclosed) stream reaches in northeastern Oregon. Exclosure ages ranged from 2 to >30 years and grazing treatments varied from light grazing every one out of three years to heavy season-long grazing. Species richness and diversity was higher in the ungrazed reaches (p = 0.002). The abundance of native sedges (Carex spp.) and broad-leaved forbs were also significantly (p ≤ 0.05) greater in ungrazed areas. In contrast, exotic species adapted to grazing such as Poa pratensis and Trifolium repens were more abundant in grazed stream reaches. The prevalence of hydrophytic species significantly increased (p ≤ 0.01) in ungrazed reaches, (based on wetland species indicator scores), indicating that wetland-dominated communities within the ungrazed stream reaches were replacing ones adapted to drier environments. The increased abundance of facultative and wetland-obligate species in ungrazed reaches compared to grazed reaches suggests that livestock grazing exacerbates those climate change effects also leading to warmer and drier conditions. Further, riparian-obligate shrub cover along the streambank was higher in 7 of 8 exclosures that were older than 5 years (p = 0.05). As a restoration approach, the inherent resilience of riparian ecosystems exhibited in ungrazed riparian zones suggest positive feedbacks to other beneficial ecosystem processes such as increased species and habitat diversity, increased carbon sequestration, enhanced allochthonous inputs and greater sediment retention, that would affect the aquatic and terrestrial biota, water quality, and stream morphology.