Initial effects of low-tech restoration of wet meadows in sagebrush steppe

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Letters & Science


In semi-arid environments, wet meadows are important sources of late-season palatable vegetation for many wildlife species; these areas often support higher coverage and diversity of plants relative to surrounding upland environments. In the sagebrush steppe of southwest Montana, wet meadows are fed by melting snowpack. Due to climate change and land use practices, the duration and amount of moisture wet meadows receive is declining. To mitigate these changes, low-tech restoration structures, such as primitive rock dams, have been installed in six different drainages across southwest Montana. Similar structures have been studied in Colorado, where they found immediate increases in plant productivity. We used these structures within an experimental framework to compare soil moisture, vegetation structure, and vegetation composition (Chapter Two), as well as known food resources (both plants and arthropods) for sage grouse chicks and nesting sage thrashers, Brewer's sparrows, and vesper sparrows (Chapter Three) one and two years after restoration. We measured soil moisture and plant canopy coverage, as well as food resources for the focal birds during the summers of 2021 and 2022. We did not detect differences between treated and control areas in soil moisture, vegetation structure, or vegetation composition during any sampling period; however, many of our estimates for vegetation structure and composition were higher in treated than control areas two years after treatment. We also did not detect differences in plant or arthropod food resources for sage grouse chicks, nesting sage thrashers, or nesting Brewer's sparrows during any sampling period. We did find higher coverage of known plant foods for vesper sparrows in treated areas, compared to controls, during September, two years after treatment; this increase was mainly driven by Kentucky bluegrass. Given the cold climate of our study sites, more time may be needed before we can detect changes resulting from the restoration structures. Even if these low-tech solutions do not provide a 'cure-all' for wet meadow restoration, changes in climate and land-use practices emphasize the continued need to find effective and practical tools to restore wet meadows in arid landscapes.




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