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Ecology of the Shortgrass SteppeA Long-Term Perspective$
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W. K. Lauenroth and I. C. Burke

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780195135824

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780195135824.001.0001

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The Future of the Shortgrass Steppe

The Future of the Shortgrass Steppe

(p.484) 19 The Future of the Shortgrass Steppe
Ecology of the Shortgrass Steppe

Ingrid C. Burke

William K. Lauenroth

Oxford University Press

Where lies the future of the shortgrass steppe? In prior chapters we have described the remarkable resilience of the shortgrass steppe ecosystem and its organisms to past drought and grazing, and their sensitivity to other types of change. Emerging from this analysis is the idea of vulnerability to two main forces: future changes in precipitation or water availability, and direct human impacts. What are the likely changes in the shortgrass steppe during the next several decades? Which of the changes are most likely to affect major responses in the plants, animals, and ecosystem services of the shortgrass steppe? In this chapter we evaluate the current status of the shortgrass steppe and its potential responses to three sets of factors that will be driving forces for the future of the steppe: land-use change, atmospheric change, and changes in diseases. Referring to the early 1900s, James Michener in his novel Centennial (1974) wrote the following:… The old two-part system that had prevailed at the end of the nineteenth century— rancher and irrigator—was now a tripartite cooperation: the rancher used the rougher upland prairie; the irrigation farmer kept to the bottom lands; and the drylands gambler plowed the sweeping 0 eld in between, losing his seed money one year, reaping a fortune the next, depending on the rain. It was an imaginative system, requiring three different types of man, three different attitudes toward life. . . . (p. 1081)… Even today, because of the strong water limitation for cropping, the shortgrass steppe remains relatively intact, or at least unplowed, in contrast to other grassland ecosystems (Samson and Knopf, 1994). More than half of the shortgrass steppe remains in untilled, landscape-scale tracts, compared with only 9% of tallgrass prairie and 39% of mixed-grass prairie (The Nature Conservancy, 2003). These large tracts, including those in the national grasslands (Pawnee, Cimarron, Comanche, and Kiowa/Rita Blanca), provide the greatest opportunity for preserving key ecological processes and biological diversity.

Keywords:   Aquatic habitats, Black-footed ferrets, Carbon cycling, Decomposition, Exotic plants, Greenhouse gases, Overgrazing, Plague, Sylvatic plague, Tularemia

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