Multivariate analysis of rangeland vegetation and soil organic carbon describes degradation, informs restoration and conservation

Devan Allen McGranahan, David M. Engle, Samuel D. Fuhlendorf, James R. Miller, Diane M. Debinski

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Agricultural expansion has eliminated a high proportion of native land cover and severely degraded remaining native vegetation. Managers must determine where degradation is severe enough to merit restoration action, and what action, if any, is necessary. We report on grassland degraded by multiple factors, including grazing, soil disturbance, and exotic plant species introduced in response to agriculture management. We use a multivariate method to categorize plant communities by degradation state based on floristic and biophysical degradation associated with historical land use. The variables we associate with degradation include abundance of the invasive cool-season grass, tall fescue (Schedonorus phoenix (Scop.) Holub); soil organic carbon (SOC); and heavy livestock grazing. Using a series of multivariate analyses (ordination, hierarchical clustering, and multiple regression), we identify patterns in plant community composition and describe floristic degradation states. We found vegetation states to be described largely by vegetation composition associated primarily with tall fescue and secondarily by severe grazing, but not soil organic carbon. Categorizing grasslands by vegetation states helps managers efficiently apply restoration inputs that optimize ecosystem response, so we discuss potential restoration pathways in a state-and-transition model. Reducing stocking rate on grassland where grazing is actively practiced is an important first step that might be sufficient for restoring grassland with high native species richness and minimal degradation from invasive plants. More severe degradation likely requires multiple approaches to reverse degradation. Of these, we recommend restoration of ecological processes and disturbance regimes such as fire and grazing. We suggest old-field grasslands in North America, which are similar to European semi-natural grassland in composition and function, deserve more attention by conservation biologists.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)328-350
Number of pages23
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2013


  • Ecological restoration
  • Multivariate analysis of variance
  • NMDS
  • SOC
  • Tall fescue
  • Vegetation degradation
  • Working landscapes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Ecology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


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