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Research aims to preserve the Great Plains by controlling woody shrubs


Grassland with several woody plants. Wide view of acres of woody plants. In a healthy rangeland ecosystem, woody plants are interspersed within a grassland, left, but rangelands become unhealthy when woody plants dominate the land, right.

Feb. 15, 2016 – A team of scientists from four universities received a $1.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to determine how to slow the encroachment of woodlands that is occurring on the Great Plains. “Once these grasslands convert to woodlands, restoration can be very difficult and can cause a lot of hardship for rural communities,” said Assistant Professor Michael Sorice. The project includes looking at governmental policies and social attitudes on the use of fire to reduce the vulnerability of grasslands to the invasion of woody plants. The team will also determine the impact of the conversion of grassland to woodland on ecological services, such as forage production, groundwater recovery, stream flow, and the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The researchers will compare three regions with contrasting degrees of woody encroachment and will analyze the factors that influence decision-making by land managers. “Overall, I want to understand how landowners in the Southern Great Plains perceive and interpret feedback from the rangeland system, judge risk, and make decisions about land management,” Sorice said. The project will also provide Web-based educational materials, workshops, and tools for private landowners, extension agents, USDA staff, and K-12 science teachers.

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