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Ecological Applications



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The invasion and spread of exotic plants following land disturbance threatens semiarid ecosystems. In sagebrush steppe, soil water is scarce and is partitioned between deeprooted perennial shrubs and shallower-rooted native forbs and grasses. Disturbances commonly remove shrubs, leaving grass-dominated communities, and may allow for the exploitation of water resources by the many species of invasive, tap-rooted forbs that are increasingly successful in this habitat. We hypothesized that exotic forb populations would benefit from increased soil water made available by removal of sagebrush, a foundation species capable of deep-rooting, in semiarid shrub-steppe ecosystems. To test this hypothesis, we used periodic matrix models to examine effects of experimental manipulations of soil water on population growth of two exotic forb species, Tragopogon dubius and Lactuca serriola, in sagebrush steppe of southern Idaho, USA. We used elasticity analyses to examine which stages in the life cycle of T. dubius and L. serriola had the largest relative influence on population growth. We studied the demography of T. dubius and L. serriola in three treatments: (1) control, in which vegetation was not disturbed, (2) shrubs removed, or (3) shrubs removed but winter–spring recharge of deep-soil water blocked by rainout shelters. The short-term population growth rate (k) of T. dubius in the shrub-removal treatment was more than double that of T. dubius in either sheltered or control treatments, both of which had limited soil water. All L. serriola individuals that emerged in undisturbed sagebrush plots died, whereas k of L. serriola was high (k . 2.5) in all shrub-removal plots, whether they had rainout shelters or not. Population growth of both forbs in all treatments was most responsive to flowering and seed production, which are life stages that should be particularly reliant on deep-soil water, as well as seedling establishment, which is important to most plant populations, especially during invasion. These data indicate the importance of native species, in this case the dominant shrub, in influencing soil resources and restricting population growth of exotic plants. These results argue that management of invasive plants should focus not only on removal of nonnatives, but also on reestablishment of important native species.

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