An experimental approach to understanding how Bromus tectorum will respond to global climate change in the sagebrush-steppe

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Agriculture


Global climate change, including elevated atmospheric CO 2 concentrations, increases in global surface temperatures, and changes in resource availability, has significant consequences for global plant communities, one of which is the expansion of invasive species. The invasive grass species Bromus tectorum dominates areas of the North American sagebrush-steppe. In these areas, B. tectorum responds positively to elevated nutrients after fire and a positive feedback with fire has been initiated. Bromus tectorum dominance and its positive response to fire are limited by cold and moist climates. Global climate change is predicted to expand the climate suitability for B. tectorum dominance, as well as that of its response to fire. Using a field study and controlled setting experiments, I investigated this prediction. In a cold and moist southwestern Montana sagebrush-steppe, my field experiment assessed the response of B. tectorum and the native plant community to increased growing season temperatures, decreased growing season precipitation, and a prescribed burn. We found that both B. tectorum and a dominant native perennial grass, Pseudoroegneria spicata, responded negatively to experimental warming, and warming and drying. Bromus tectorum's response to fire was limited to an increase in individual fecundity across the climate scenarios and compensatory growth in warm and dry conditions. In controlled settings, using differing densities of B. tectorum and P. spicata, I performed replacement series experiments that altered temperature, water availability, nutrient availability, and, secondly, atmospheric CO 2 concentration and water availability. Bromus tectorum competitiveness was enhanced by warmer and drier conditions and elevated nutrient availability. When grown in monoculture, both species responded positively to elevated CO 2. When grown in competition, elevated CO 2 increased P. spicata's already significant suppressive effect on B. tectorum. This effect was magnified when soil moisture was limited. Due to B. tectorum's significant negative response to the field climate treatments, its limited response to fire, and the significant suppressive effect of the native grasses in both experiments, especially in elevated CO 2, I conclude that similar future climate scenarios will not promote the expansion of B. tectorum dominance and its positive response to fire within the cold and moist northern region of the sagebrush-steppe.




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