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Research aims to preserve Great Plains by preventing woody shrubs from taking over

Oct. 21, 2014 – More than 300 years ago, bison and periodic fires helped to maintain the Southern Great Plains as grasslands. Fast forward to the permanent European settlement in the 1800s — the establishment of livestock grazing and the elimination of fire from the system has since created an environment that is sapping the resilience of the grasslands.

A team of scientists from four universities, including Virginia Tech, has received a $1.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to determine how to slow the encroachment of woodlands that is occurring on the Great Plains despite current rangeland management.

“Once these grasslands convert to woodlands, restoration can be very difficult and can cause a lot of hardship for rural communities,” said Michael Sorice, assistant professor of outdoor recreation and human dimensions in Virginia Tech’s Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment. “The best approach is to understand both the social and ecological factors that facilitate or inhibit this change in the first place.”

The research project, led by Brad Wilcox, professor of ecosystem science and management at Texas A&M University, includes looking at governmental policies and social attitudes on the use of fire to reduce the vulnerability of grasslands to the invasion of woody plants.

The team will also determine the impact of the conversion of grassland to woodland on ecological services, such as forage production, groundwater recovery, stream flow, and the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The researchers will compare three regions with contrasting degrees of woody encroachment in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. They will analyze the factors that influence decision making by land managers with respect to the use of prescribed fire and project changes in regional woody plant cover under different scenarios of fire management.

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