Woody Plant Encroachment: Causes and Consequences
Published on Jan 1, 2017
· DOI :10.1007/978-3-319-46709-2_2
Woody vegetation in grasslands and savannas has increased worldwide over the past 100–200 years. This phenomenon of “woody plant encroachment” (WPE) has been documented to occur at different times but at comparable rates in rangelands of the Americas, Australia, and southern Africa. The objectives of this chapter are to review (1) the process of WPE and its causes, (2) consequences for ecosystem function and the provision of services, and (3) the effectiveness of management interventions aimed at reducing woody cover. Explanations for WPE require consideration of multiple interacting drivers and constraints and their variation through time at a given site. Mean annual precipitation sets an upper limit to woody plant cover, but local patterns of disturbance (fire, browsing) and soil properties (texture, depth) prevent the realization of this potential. In the absence of these constraints, seasonality, interannual variation, and intensity of precipitation events determine the rate and extent of woody plant expansion. Although probably not a triggering factor, rising atmospheric CO2 levels may have favored C3 woody plant growth. WPE coincided with the global intensification of livestock grazing that by reducing fine fuels, hence fire frequency and intensity, facilitated WPE. From a conservation perspective, WPE threatens the maintenance of grassland and savanna ecosystems and its endemic biodiversity. Traditional management goals aimed at restoring forage and livestock production after WPE have broadened to support a more diverse portfolio of ecosystem services. Accordingly, we focus on how WPE and management actions aimed at reducing woody plant cover influence carbon sequestration, water yield, and biodiversity, and discuss the trade-offs involved when balancing competing management objectives.
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