Western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis spp. occidentalis Hook.) has encroached on and now dominates millions of acres of sagebrush/bunchgrass rangeland in the Great Basin and interior Pacific Northwest. On many sites western juniper has significantly increased exposure of the soil surface by reducing density of understory species and surface litter. We used rainfall and rill simulation techniques to evaluate infiltration, runoff, and erosion on cut and uncut field treatments 10 years after juniper removal. Juniper-dominated hillslopes had significantly lower surface soil cover of herbaceous plants and litter and produced rapid runoff from low-intensity rainfall events of the type that would be expected to occur every 2 years. Direct exposure of the soil to rainfall impacts resulted in high levels of sheet erosion (295 kg · ha−1) in juniper-dominated plots. Large interconnected patches of bare ground concentrated runoff into rills with much higher flow velocity and erosive force resulting in rill erosion rates that were over 15 times higher on juniper-dominated plots. Cutting juniper stimulated herbaceous plant recovery, improved infiltration capacity, and protected the soil surface from even large thunderstorms. Juniper-free plots could only be induced to produce runoff from high-intensity events that would be expected to occur once every 50 years. Runoff events from these higher-intensity simulations produced negligible levels of both sheet and rill erosion. While specific inferences drawn from the current study are limited to juniper-affected sites in the Intermountain sagebrush steppe, the scope of ecosystem impacts are consistent with woody-plant invasion in other ecosystems around the world.
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Vol. 60 • No. 3