Riparian vegetation and forest structure of two unregulated tributaries, compared to the regulated Snake River, Grand Teton NP, WY

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Letters & Science


The dynamic nature of rivers shapes riparian plant communities, and changes to the flow regime can have profound effects on these diverse ecosystems. To examine how riparian plant communities of the dam-regulated Snake River in Grand Teton National Park, WY respond to hydro-geomorphological factors, I studied the vegetation of two unregulated tributaries, Pacific Creek and Buffalo Fork, in relation to the main river. I considered three perspectives in this analysis. In chapter 2, I examined hydro-geomorphological processes shaping riparian vegetation in naturally flowing systems, by evaluating 15 environmental variables, and determining which were most related to vegetation. Using cluster analysis, I identified six distinct communities. I described environmental conditions associated with each community, using the unconstrained ordination technique NMDS, coupled with generalized additive models (GAMs). Community types occur on characteristic geomorphologic landforms. Depth to gravel, soil texture, pH, distance to bankfull channel, and elevation above water are all related to vegetation, and interact to determine where community types occur. In my third chapter, I compared the vegetation of the unregulated tributaries to the Snake River, as a means of assessing dam effects. Species richness per plot is higher on the tributaries, despite higher overall richness on the Snake River. Through the use of NMDS ordination and clustering techniques, I found the composition of the upper section of the Snake River, immediately below the dam, to be distinct. However, this section is naturally more incised, and the lower sections of the river do not seem to be influenced, suggesting dam impacts on vegetation are minimal. Environmental variables related to vegetation composition include elevation above water, depth to gravel, and geomorphological landform. In chapter 4, I compared age class distributions of spruce and cottonwoods across river sections, and found no evidence for a late-successional trend on the regulated river, versus unregulated tributaries. Age distribution is related to geomorphological landform, and browing also influences forest structure through root coppicing. Forest understory communities are structured by cottonwood age.




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