Ecological systems comprise a complex array of interacting processes that manifest across multiple scales. Effective management of natural ecosystems has to be underpinned by an understanding of how the scaling of these processes influences system integrity and stability. This is particularly true in semiarid rangelands, which display strong relationships between pattern and process that are fundamental to maintaining ecosystem function. Grazing can disrupt the scaling of these relationships and the mechanistic coupling between pattern and process, undermining the health of grazed semiarid rangelands. This is due to possible hysteretic responses in key system components to increases and decreases in grazing disturbance. We used data from a semiarid rangeland in northern Australia to test for hysteretic responses in system components after the removal of cattle grazing. We found an uncoupling of spatial linkages between vegetation and soil moisture in a severely degraded plot that was not evident in less intensively grazed or recovering plots. Recovering plots protected from grazing for 20 yr showed a scale of spatial linkage between vegetation and soil moisture, and soil organic matter and mineralization flush, of a scale much coarser than that of degrading plots. These findings provide evidence for hysteretic recovery from grazing and demonstrate that comparison of the spatial patterns of vegetation and soil properties is essential for capturing the true state of ecological functionality in this system. This has important implications for assessing ecological function in systems typified by strong natural environmental variation or in which data for pristine conditions are lacking.
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Vol. 62 • No. 2