Woodland dynamics at the northern range periphery: A challenge for protected area management in a changing world

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Managers of protected natural areas increasingly are confronted with novel ecological conditions and conflicting objectives to preserve the past while fostering resilience for an uncertain future. This dilemma may be pronounced at range peripheries where rates of change are accelerated and ongoing invasions often are perceived as threats to local ecosystems. We provide an example from City of Rocks National Reserve (CIRO) in southern Idaho, positioned at the northern range periphery of pinyon-juniper (P-J) woodland. Reserve managers are concerned about P-J woodland encroachment into adjacent sagebrush steppe, but the rates and biophysical variability of encroachment are not well documented and management options are not well understood. We quantified the rate and extent of woodland change between 1950 and 2009 based on a random sample of aerial photo interpretation plots distributed across biophysical gradients. Our study revealed that woodland cover remained at approximately 20% of the study area over the 59-year period. In the absence of disturbance, P-J woodlands exhibited the highest rate of increase among vegetation types at 0.37% yr−1. Overall, late-successional P-J stands increased in area by over 100% through the process of densification (infilling). However, wildfires during the period resulted in a net decrease of woody evergreen vegetation, particularly among early and mid-successional P-J stands. Elevated wildfire risk associated with expanding novel annual grasslands and drought is likely to continue to be a fundamental driver of change in CIRO woodlands. Because P-J woodlands contribute to regional biodiversity and may contract at trailing edges with global warming, CIRO may become important to P-J woodland conservation in the future. Our study provides a widely applicable toolset for assessing woodland ecotone dynamics that can help managers reconcile the competing demands to maintain historical fidelity and contribute meaningfully to the U.S. protected area network in a future with novel, no-analog ecosystems.

Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Woodland dynamics at the northern range periphery: A challenge for protected area management in a changing world
Series title PLoS ONE
DOI 10.1371/journal.pone.0070454
Volume 8
Issue 7
Year Published 2013
Language English
Publisher Public Library of Science
Contributing office(s) National Research Program - Eastern Branch
Description e70454; 10 p.
Country United States
State Idaho
Other Geospatial City of Rocks National Reserve
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