Shrub encroachment into grasslands is a worldwide phenomenon with no signs of abating and numerous ecological consequences. In South Texas, honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa Torr.) and huisache (Vachellia farnesiana [L.] Wight & Arn.) are two shrubs encroaching into coastal prairies, reducing cover of the dominant native grass, gulf cordgrass (Spartina spartinae [Trin.]Merr. ex Hitchc.), and decreasing habitat for the endangered Aplomado Falcon (Falco femoralis), which requires grasslands or savannas for survival. To determine the best management approach for deterring shrub encroachment and restoring native grasslands, the US Fish and Wildlife Service used several shrub removal techniques within coastal prairies of the Bahía Grande Wetland Complex of the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, a core site for Aplomado Falcon reintroductions. Here, we assess native grass recovery over a 2-yr period in response to these shrub removal methods (mechanical plus prescribed fire and/or herbicide treatments) and degree of shrub encroachment before treatment. In general, areas with high levels of shrub encroachment before treatment had the highest amount of bare ground and lowest grass cover immediately following an initial mechanical treatment; this legacy effect persisted throughout the study irrespective of shrub removal treatment. Regardless of degree of shrub encroachment before treatment, grasses in areas treated with either mechanical or mechanical followed by herbicide methods recovered the slowest, likely due to residual woody material that hindered seed germination. Herbicide treatment following mechanical removal or mechanical removal plus fire effectively hindered shrub regrowth. Overall, mechanical treatment followed by prescribed fire and then herbicide application most effectively promoted grass recovery while hindering shrub regrowth. These findings suggest that grassland recovery following shrub encroachment into South Texas coastal prairies may be promoted through the application of shrub removal methods that combine mechanical, fire, and herbicide treatments.
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