Agricultural land use is known to alter ecological processes, and native plant communities can require decades to centuries to recover from the disturbance of cultivation. “Recovery” is typically measured by comparison to undisturbed adjacent sites as a control. Recovery following cultivation in sagebrush ecosystems of the Great Basin remains largely unexamined even though nearly a half million hectares of land were dry-farmed and abandoned in the early 1900s. We tested the hypothesis that the native vegetation has not recovered from this exotic disturbance by evaluating differences in canopy cover of shrubs, grasses, and forbs between paired sets of historically dry-farmed land and adjacent never-cultivated areas. Paired sites were located in three ecological sites in northwestern Utah. We found that vegetation recovery from cultivation is variable by growth form, species, and ecological site. Shrub recovery was different among sagebrush (Artemisia) species. Yellow rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus viscidiflorus [Hook.] Nutt.) and black greasewood (Sarcobatus vermiculatus [Hook.] Torr.), which often increase following disturbance, maintained higher cover inside old fields. At one of the paired sets, shrub composition was altered from a mix of four species to dominance of mainly Wyoming big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata Nutt. subsp. wyomingensis Beetle & Young). Total forb cover was generally lower in cultivated areas and some species, such as spiny phlox (Phlox hoodii Richardson), had not recovered. The most common grass species encountered across all ecological sites, bottlebrush squirreltail (Elymus elymoides [Raf.] Swezey), had higher cover in cultivated areas. Surprisingly, exotic annual species, such as cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum L.), did not dominate these sites as they have for decades after cultivation in other areas of the Great Basin. This study demonstrates that the land-use legacy of dry farming on vegetation remains nearly a century after cultivation has ceased, and has direct implications for describing ecological site conditions.
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