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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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Vegetation of the Shortgrass Steppe

Vegetation of the Shortgrass Steppe

(p.70) 5 Vegetation of the Shortgrass Steppe
Ecology of the Shortgrass Steppe

William K. Lauenroth

Oxford University Press

Two species are most characteristic of the vegetation of the shortgrass steppe: Bouteloua gracilis and Buchloë dactyloides. Both are perennial C4 grasses and are informally called shortgrasses. Technically, this means that they are both culmless grasses in which, for the majority of the tillers, the apical meristem remains at or near the soil surface and is protected by a succession of enveloping leaf sheaths for the entire growing season (Dahl, 1995; Dahl and Hyder, 1977). This morphological characteristic makes these two grasses well adapted to withstand turnover of aboveground organs as a result of intraseasonal drought or grazing by large generalist herbivores such as cattle. The current dominance of B. gracilis and B. dactyloides in the region is clear, but their ecological status has been controversial. In the earliest assessment of the vegetation of the Great Plains, Shantz and Zon (1924) mapped the western portion of the grasslands from the Canadian border to the panhandle of Texas as shortgrass or plains grassland, with B. gracilis as the characteristic species. However, Weaver and Clements ( 1938) argued t hat it h ad b een proved t hat Shantz a nd Zon’s shortgrass plains was not a climax plant community, but rather a disclimax as a result of overgrazing by livestock. Although these two views persist today, a 1964 map of the potential natural vegetation of the United States presented an alternative interpretation and a compromise between the views of Shantz and Zon (1924) and Weaver and Clements (1938). Küchler (1964) divided the large shortgrass area into a northern portion that is consistent with Weaver and Clements’s mixed prairie and a southern portion in which the potential vegetation is dominated by shortgrasses. Our definition of the shortgrass steppe is identical to Küchler’s (1964) Bouteloua–Buchloë vegetation type, except along the northern border. His Bouteloua–Buchloë type extends into the southeastern corner of Wyoming and the panhandle of Nebraska, but we draw the boundary between the shortgrass steppe and the northern mixed prairie at the Colorado–Wyoming border because of the sharp elevation gradient between the Colorado Piedmont and the High Plains that occurs at approximately the Colorado–Wyoming border, and the associated changes in both the environment and the vegetation (Lauenroth and Milchunas, 1992).

Keywords:   Cover, Dwarf shrubs, Eolian sand, Graminoids, Nonsaline lowlands, Riparian areas

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