Restoration of central Texas savanna and woodland : the effects of fire, deer, and invasive species on plant community trajectories
Prescribed fire is a common tool used to restore native diversity, control invasive species, and reduce fuel loads. However, fire alone can be insufficient to restore pre-settlement vegetation; other factors such as differences in native and invasive species pools, deer herbivory, seed availability, and the spatial pattern of the fire can influence vegetation trajectories and restoration outcomes. Central Texas is a mosaic of savanna and mixed woodlands co-dominated by Quercus buckleyi (Texas red oak) and Juniperus ashei (Ashe juniper). In a savanna, I studied the joint effects of initial species composition (native-dominated or invasive-dominated) and disturbance (high-intensity fire, clipping, or control) on the ability of native species to establish, survive, and resist invasion by Bothriochloa ischaemum, an invasive C4 grass (ch. 1). Native savanna patches were resistant to invasion following high-intensity fire; fire can be used to selectively control B. ischaemum. In central Texas savanna and woodlands, under fire suppression and overabundant white-tailed deer, Quercus spp. are failing to regenerate, while J. ashei is increasing in abundance. To better understand vegetation trajectories following J. ashei removal in savanna, I studied the soil seedbank along a chronosequence of J. ashei invasion (ch. 5). In woodland, I studied the joint effects of prescribed fire and deer (ch. 2), clearing of J. ashei followed by high-intensity slash-pile burns (ch. 3), and wildfires (ch. 4) on the abundance and size of J. ashei and of hardwoods. Hardwoods resprouted vigorously after fire; J. ashei individuals of all sizes were killed by fire and slow to re-colonize. These management interventions failed to increase Q. buckleyi seedling abundance. It is likely that deer control is necessary to allow fire to have positive effects on the regeneration of oaks in this region, and wherever deer are over-abundant. However, deer can indirectly benefit hardwoods by reducing competition with palatable forbs (ch. 3). In general, these results show that fire suppression in central Texas oak-dominated woodlands is causing a shift not to more mesic-adapted species, as observed in the eastern US, but to J. ashei, which is at least as xeric-adapted as oak, a process I termed 'juniperization'.