Date of Award
Master of Science
The prairie communities that once dominated the landscape of Illinois have been reduced to a fraction of their former extent. Subsequently, considerable effort has been invested in the restoration of these lost communities, yet the comprehensive assessment of restoration success has only recently garnered interest. The objectives of this study were 1) to gauge the success of a prairie restoration project by measuring the components of ecological fidelity (structure/composition, function, and durability), and 2) to determine the factors that influenced success. Nineteen prairie plantings (ranging from two to 19 growing seasons old) at The Nature Conservancy's Nachusa Grasslands preserve were chosen for the assessment. Floristic quality was calculated to assess the composition component of ecological fidelity. Aboveground net primary productivity, soil bulk density, total soil nitrogen and total soil carbon were measured to assess the function component (soil measurements were taken at 0-5 and 5-15 cm depths). Results were compared to benchmark values taken from the literature and from samples of remnant prairies. Durability was determined by comparing measurements across a restoration chronosequence. To further evaluate the prairie plantings and restoration success, non-metric multidimensional scaling ordination was used to compare plantings based on their vegetation composition and soil characteristics (prairie remnants were also included in the comparison based on soil characteristics). Values of Mean C and FQI indicated successful levels among younger plantings, but durability was less successful according to the chronosequence. Seed-mix quality had the greatest influence (positive) on composition success. Aboveground net primary productivity levels were successful and durable overall, however, younger plantings exhibited successful levels of production more consistently than older plantings. Aboveground net primary productivity was most influenced (negatively) by the abundance of the exotic C3 grass genera Poa and Bromus. Functional success based on soil characteristics was limited. Soil bulk density, total nitrogen, and total carbon levels all differed among plantings and remnants at both depths, and evidence of levels recovering toward levels of remnants was not detected. The results of this study indicated that some components of ecological fidelity have been successfully restored, while others have not, and using a high-quality seed mix that resembles the species pool of remnant prairie and limiting the abundance of the dominant native C4 and exotic C3 grasses can improve the restoration of plant composition and ecological function in Illinois prairie plantings. The mixed results underscore the importance of examining more than one component of ecological fidelity when measuring success. Long-term monitoring is also recommended for evaluating restoration durability, especially for detecting changes among soil properties over time.
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