Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy
Anthropogenic change in the Great Plains of North America within the past two centuries has facilitated extensive woody encroachment by eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana, hereafter redcedar). Conversion of grassland to redcedar woodland occurs rapidly as a result of the interaction between changing disturbance and land use patterns. In addition, redcedar encroachment causes compositional shifts in grassland floral and faunal assemblages, and may alter abiotic factors such that grassland restoration efforts are limited. The objectives of this study were to: 1) track vegetation and faunal assemblages in grasslands along a gradient of redcedar encroachment, 2) assess the capacity for experimental tree removal to promote re-colonization of grasslands by associated flora and fauna, and 3) examine the influence of scale on spatial relationships between small-mammal abundance and redcedar cover. During the first phase of my study, I examined herbaceous vegetation, woody vegetation, and small-mammal assemblages at grassland sites along a redcedar encroachment gradient in north-central Oklahoma. I noted hump-shaped trends in the capture rate, species diversity, and species evenness of small mammals along the redcedar encroachment gradient. In addition, higher levels of encroachment were associated with compositional shifts from grassland- to woodland-associated small mammals. Characteristics of the small-mammal assemblage along the gradient corresponded to increases in redcedar cover and the frequency of episodic management events within the past two decades. Experimental redcedar removal during the second phase of my study generally increased vegetation and faunal diversity in 2 years following treatment, and treatment sites having the highest pre-treatment levels of redcedar cover exhibited the greatest responses to tree removal. The results of my study suggested that within the time frame I examined, redcedar encroachment had altered the biotic characteristics of this system, but did not facilitate abiotic shifts capable of constraining rapid grassland recovery. Tree removal also appeared to modulate the effects of consecutive drought and flood years on small-mammal diversity during post-treatment. During the third phase of my study, I examined the strength of association between differences in percent redcedar cover and spatial abundance patterns of 4 common small-mammal species. I examined small-mammal abundance at three relatively small spatial scales (38, 154, and 616 m2) to determine how redcedar-mammal associations were stronger with increases in spatial scale. In addition, I determined whether the influence of spatial scale on redcedar-mammal associations varied along a gradient of redcedar encroachment. The strength of redcedar-mammal associations increased with spatial scale, but was strongest at sites having the lowest levels of encroachment. These results corresponded to variation in the spatial distribution of redcedar cover and compositional differences in the small-mammal species assemblage along the encroachment gradient. Studies examining the effects of woody encroachment will extend our understanding of successional processes and ensure that appropriate management is implemented in the conservation of these imperiled grassland ecosystems.
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