Exotic plants increase and native plants decrease with loss of foundation species in sagebrush steppe

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Plant Ecology



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Dominant plant species, or foundation species, are recognized to have a disproportionate control over resources in ecosystems, but few studies have evaluated their relationship to exotic invasions. Loss of foundation species could increase resource availability to the benefit of exotic plants, and could thereby facilitate invasion. The success of exotic plant invasions in sagebrush steppe was hypothesized to benefit from increased available soil water following removal of sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), a foundation species. We examined the effects of sagebrush removal, with and without the extra soil water made available by exclusion of sagebrush, on abundance of exotic and native plants in the shrub steppe of southern Idaho, USA. We compared plant responses in three treatments: undisturbed sagebrush steppe; sagebrush removed; and sagebrush removed plus plots covered with “rainout” shelters that blocked winter-spring recharge of soil water. The third treatment allowed us to examine effects of sagebrush removal alone, without the associated increase in deep-soil water that is expected to accompany removal of sagebrush. Overall, exotic herbs (the grass Bromus tectorum and four forbs) were 3–4 times more abundant in shrub-removal and 2 times more abundant in shrub-removal + rainout-shelter treatments than in the control treatment, where sagebrush was undisturbed. Conversely, native forbs were only about half as abundant in shrub removal compared to control plots. These results indicate that removal of sagebrush facilitates invasion of exotic plants, and that increased soil water is one of the causes. Our findings suggest that sagebrush plays an important role in reducing invasions by exotic plants and maintaining native plant communities, in the cold desert we evaluated.

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