This study evaluated the impact of shrub encroachment within cool-season floodplain meadows in a portion of the Rocky Mountain Forest Reserve in southwestern Alberta, where nearly half of open grasslands have been lost since 1958. Sample transects situated in meadows, known formerly to be in open grassland, were assessed in 2001 (n = 21) and 2002 (n = 33) in areas ranging from 0% to 92% shrub cover. Shrub cover, density, and height were correlated to understory parameters, including herbaceous production, bunchgrass cover and density, and species richness and diversity. Additional data on soil horizon depths were obtained. Analysis was conducted using regression to assess empirical relationships between understory or soil characteristics and the overstory. Stronger empirical relationships (i.e., greater R2) were found in 2002, coincident with larger sample sizes and greater rainfall. Among independent overstory variables, aggregate shrub cover for all species accounted for the greatest variation in understory characteristics. Significant (P < 0.01) negative nonlinear relationships were observed between shrub cover and herbage production, with the latter declining from 6 629 kg · ha–1 in meadows containing less than 12% shrub cover, to 2 797 kg · ha–1 in areas where shrub cover exceeded 35%. Negative linear trends were found (P < 0.01) for bunchgrass density and cover in relation to increasing shrub abundance in 2002. Understory diversity increased with shrub abundance, peaking at 64% shrub cover in 2002. Meadows with low and high shrub cover also coincided with thicker Ah and litter, fibric, and humic soil layer (LFH) horizons, respectively. Collectively, these results indicate shrub encroachment is threatening the sustainability of native bunchgrass communities and reducing forage availability. Meadow conservation in this area will require proactive management to protect or restore open grasslands.
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Vol. 62 • No. 1