Assessing the potential for transitions from tallgrass prairie to woodlands: are we operating beyond critical transitions?

TitleAssessing the potential for transitions from tallgrass prairie to woodlands: are we operating beyond critical transitions?
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2016
AuthorsRatajczak, Z, Briggs, JM, Goodin, DG, Mohler, R, Nippert, JB, Obermeyer, BK
JournalRangeland Ecology & Management
Accession NumberKNZ001721
Keywordscatastrophic shifts, forecasting, mesic grasslands, regime shifts, resilience, tipping points

A growing body of evidence suggests humans are pushing ecosystems near or beyond key ecological thresholds, resulting in transitions to new, sometimes undesirable phases or states that are costly to reverse. We used remotely sensed fire data to assess if the Flint Hills—a landscape of tallgrass prairie in the Central Great Plains, United States—is operating beyond fire frequency thresholds. Long-term fire experiments and observational evidence suggests that applying prescribed fire at return intervals > 3 yr can lead to transitions from grassland to shrubland. Fire return intervals > 10 yr and complete fire suppression, in particular, can result in transitions to woodlands over 30 − 50 yr. Once shrublands and woodlands are established, restoration back to grassland is difficult with prescribed fires. We applied these fire frequency cutoffs to remotely sensed fire data from 2000 to 2010 in the Flint Hills, identifying the extent of tallgrass prairie susceptible to shrub and tree expansion. We found that 56% (15 620 km2) of grasslands in this region are burned less than every 3 yr and are therefore susceptible to conversion to shrub or tree dominance. The potential effects of this large-scale shift are greater risk for evergreen (Juniperus virginiana) woodland fires, reduced grazing potential, and increased abundance of woodland adapted species at the expense of the native grassland biota. Of the 12 127-km2 area likely to remain grassland, 43% is burned approximately annually, contributing to vegetative homogenization and potential air-quality issues. While this synthesis forecasts a precarious future for tallgrass prairie conservation and their ecosystem services, increases in shrub or tree dominances are usually reversible until fire frequency has been reduced for more than 20 yr. This delay leaves a small window of opportunity to return fire to the landscape and avoid large-scale transformation of tallgrass prairie.