Timescale of Perennial Grass Recovery in Desertified Arid Grasslands Following Livestock Removal

Over the past two centuries, perennial grass cover has declined and shrub density has increased in many arid grasslands. These changes in vegetation, characteristic of desertification, are thought to have occurred often following prolonged periods of intense grazing by domestic livestock. At many such sites, however, the subsequent removal of livestock grazing for up to 20 years has not resulted in increased grass cover. The apparent stability of vegetation following the cessation of livestock grazing has led to the hypothesis that desertified arid grasslands exist in alternate stable states of either grassland or shrubland over timescales relevant to management. To better understand the timescale of grass recovery in historic arid grasslands dominated by shrubs, we examined the vegetation at two nearby desertified sites that differed in the length of time since livestock removal. There was little difference between the site ungrazed for 20 years and the shrub-dominated vegetation on the other side of the exclusion fence. At a site ungrazed for 39 years there was significantly higher perennial grass cover inside the exclusion fence than outside, and nearly all the increase had occurred over the past 20 years. These data suggest that there may be time lags of 20 years or more in the response of perennial grasses to removal of livestock in historic grassland ecosystems dominated by shrubs.