Questions: How do young sagebrush shrubs (Artemisia rothrockii, Asteraceae) affect soil moisture availability? How do young sagebrush shrubs affect soil nitrogen cycling? How does the resident herb community respond to shrub removal in the early stages of sagebrush encroachment?
Location: Mulkey and Bullfrog Meadows on the Kern Plateau in the Golden Trout Wilderness, Sierra Nevada Mountains, Inyo National Forest, Inyo County, California, USA.
Methods: We removed young encroaching sagebrush shrubs from 3.5 m × 3.5 m plots and compared soil moisture, net mineralization, net nitrification, and herb cover with paired control plots over four growing seasons.
Results: On average throughout the experiment, the difference between removal plots and control plots in soil moisture was small. Removal plots were wetter by 1.3 ± 2.0% at 0–30 cm depth, 2.1 ± 3.1% at 30–60 cm depth and 3.1 ± 5.8% at 60–90 cm depth. By contrast, after four years, net mineralization was 32 ± 26% (mean ± 95% CI) lower in sagebrush removal plots, suggesting that sagebrush encroachment increases rates of N-cycling. Total herb cover was 13.0 ± 6.4% (mean ± 95% CI) higher in plots where young sagebrush shrubs were removed. This difference in cover appeared during the first season in which sagebrush shrubs were removed.
Conclusions: Our results suggest that while young sagebrush shrubs do not contribute substantially to meadow drying, they alter N cycling rates, and may indirectly increase the rate of their own encroachment by competitively reducing resident herbs.