Canopy dynamics and human caused disturbance on a semi-arid landscape in the Rocky Mountains, USA

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Invasion of grasslands by woody plants has been identified as a key indicator of changes in ecosystem structure and function in arid and semi-arid rangelands throughout the world. We investigated changes in the balance between woody and herbaceous components of a semi-arid landscape in western Colorado (USA) using historical aerial photography. Aerial photographs from 1937, 1965–67, and 1994 were sampled at matched locations within overlapping photographs. We modeled change in spatial pattern and heterogeneity across the entire landscape and found a small, net decrease in woody canopy cover, however means disguised normal distributions of change that demonstrated offsetting increases and decreases. We described a region of widespread canopy decline within piñon-juniper forests between 2300 and 2600 m (7500–8500 feet) and a region of predominant increase at lower elevations, between 1800 and 2250 m (5900–7400 feet). It remains unclear whether this shift was driven by climate or by human-caused or natural disturbance. Mean conifer cover decreased within coniferous forests, which counteracted a trend of increased conifer cover in mixed forests, savanna-like woodlands, and the shrub steppe. Disturbance had a significant interaction with cover change in several communities, including forests, savanna and shrublands. Anthropogenic disturbances counteracted successional trends toward canopy closure more than wildfires, but this did not entirely explain observed canopy decline. The natural dynamics in this region also caused diverse changes rather than a simple progression towards increased forest cover. Importantly, temporal change in vegetation varied spatially across the landscape illustrating the importance of landscape level, spatially explicit analyses in characterizing temporal dynamics.

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