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Relationships between groundwater use, water table, and recovery of willow on Yellowstone's northern range




Johnston, Danielle B., author
Cooper, David J., author
Hobbs, N. Thompson, author
Ecological Society of America, publisher

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Excessive levels of herbivory, incision of stream channels, and climate warming are believed to be responsible for the decline of woody deciduous plants in riparian zones in western North America, declines that are likely to be associated with diminished biological diversity. In the northern elk wintering range of Yellowstone National Park, USA, over browsing by elk (Cervus elaphus), lowered water tables resulting from stream incision, and loss of activity by beaver (Castor canadensis) have been implicated in the decline of willow (Salix sp.) communities. Reducing elk browsing appears sufficient for willow recovery in some areas, but where water table changes have been dramatic, recovery may be slow or absent. The importance of water table changes is disputed because experimental results demonstrate water table limitations, but water table depth has failed to explain variation in willow height at landscape scales. One explanation for this apparent discrepancy is that willows that have survived intensive browsing by elk have maintained access to groundwater despite declining water tables. Using stable isotopes of water, we examined the relationships between groundwater use, water table depth, and height of heavily browsed Salix geyeriana. Salix geyeriana groundwater use varied from 30% to 80%, and was higher later in the growing season, when soil water was less available and shoot water potentials were lower. Late season groundwater use explained 26% of the variation in total height of willows (P = 0.002), with taller plants using more groundwater. Water table depth explained only 8% of the variability in total height (P=0.051), with shorter willows having deeper water table depths. Groundwater use and water table depth were uncorrelated. Height recovery following a winter of heavy browsing was related to groundwater use, but not groundwater depth. We suggest that access to deeper water sources alleviates late season water stress, allowing for more rapid height recovery and higher total plant height. Variability in groundwater access may account for variability in height recovery at landscape scales.


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restoration ecology
riparian vegetation
Salix geyeriana
stable oxygen isotopes
water sources


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