Date of Award:

Spring 2014

Document Type:


Degree Name:

Master of Science (MS)


Wildland Resources


Eugene W. Schupp


The interaction of land-use and climate can cause non-linear “state” changes in ecosystems, characterized by persistent differences in structure and function. Changes in land-use and climate on the Colorado Plateau may be driving many ecosystems toward undesired states where energy-intensive measures are required to return to previous states. Landscape classification systems based on “ecological potential” offer a robust framework to evaluate ecological conditions. Ecological sites are a popular landscape classification system based on long-term ecological potential and are widely used throughout the western US. Ecological sites have been described extensively for rangelands and woodlands on DOI Bureau of Land Management lands; however, they have yet to be described on USDA Forest Service (USFS) lands. In this thesis, I describe a statistical approach to ecological site delineation and the development of state-and-transition models, diagrams that illustrate ecosystem dynamics and responses to disturbances. In Chapter 2, I used a large inventory dataset and multivariate statistical procedures to classify plots based on life zone, soils, and potential vegetation, effectively delineating statistical ecological site-like groups. Most of the statistical ecological sites matched ecological sites already described by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Additionally, I described one new ecological site that has not been described by the NRCS in the Colorado Plateau region. In Chapter 3, I examined empirical evidence for alternative states in mountain ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa Lawson & C. Lawson) and upland piñon-juniper ecosystems. Using multivariate statistical procedures, I found that plots cluster into groups consistent with generalized alternative states identified in a priori conceptual models. Additionally, I showed that ponderosa pine clusters were true alternative states and piñon-juniper clusters were not true alternative states because they were confounded by similarities in climate. Ponderosa pine clusters were differentiated by overstory ponderosa pine density and corresponded to three states: current potential, high fuel load, and reduced overstory. These results illustrate the range of ecosystem variability that is present throughout the study area and present evidence for alternatives states caused by historical land-use. This project is the first to propose ecological sites and state-and-transition models on USFS lands in this region. These techniques could be applied to areas that do not have formally described ecological sites and state-and-transition models and could help identify ecological sites that may have been overlooked using other means of delineation. Additionally, these methods can be used to evaluate the range of ecological variability throughout an area of interest and to improved understanding of ecosystem dynamics.