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Individual Highlight

Climate change and wildfire effects in aridland riparian ecosystems

Photo of The mixture of native and nonnative woody vegetation along the San Juan River has greater structural diversity than the adjacent plant community.The mixture of native and nonnative woody vegetation along the San Juan River has greater structural diversity than the adjacent plant community.Snapshot : A frequently discussed function of aridland riparian ecosystems is the contribution of woody riparian plants to breeding bird habitat. The structurally diverse, species-rich vegetation along many southwestern streams supports high densities of territories and nest sites for a variety of birds including several species of high- conservation priority. Given the limited extent of aridland riparian ecosystems and likelihood of further hydrological change, an understanding of current and future effects of disturbance processes on populations of riparian plants are needed to protect breeding bird communities in the American Southwest.

Principal Investigators(s) :
Finch, Deborah M.  
Research Location : Semiarid-to-arid portions of Utah, Colroado, New Mexico, and Arizona.
Research Station : Rocky Mountain Research Station (RMRS)
Year : 2017
Highlight ID : 1373

Summary

Survival and reproduction of woody riparian plants is largely determined by periodic disturbances such as flood and drought. Hydrological models, incorporating greenhouse gas emission scenarios, predict that these changes will be exacerbated by climate change. Given the limited extent of aridland riparian ecosystems and likelihood of further hydrological change, an understanding of current and future effects of disturbance processes on populations of riparian plants are needed to protect breeding bird communities in the American Southwest. To understand the effects of hydrological changes and wildfire on woody plants and riparian-nesting birds, Forest Service scientists reviewed the ecohydrology [an interdisciplinary area that draws on both ecology and hydrology] of southwestern streams and shared results from studies at the Middle Rio Grande. Their research found that: (1) Cottonwoods and other trees are key components of aridland riparian ecosystems. (2) Reproduction and survival of these plants are largely determined by volume and timing of streamflows. (3) Following alteration to natural disturbance regimes, wildfire has emerged as a threat to riparian ecosystems along streams such as the Middle Rio Grande; where nonnative plants such saltcedar recover from fire more effectively than native species. And, (4) Cottonwood population projections indicated that sharp declines will occur as a result of climate-induced changes to streamflow and continued occurrence of wildfire.