Nearly all the techniques used to quantify how plants are linked to environmental gradients produce results in general terms, such as low to high elevation, xeric to mesic, and low to high concentration. While ecologists comprehend these imprecise scales, managers responsible for making decisions affecting these gradients need more precise information. For our study, we preserved the measurement scale and units of a dominant environmental gradient by using non-linear models to fit plant frequency to a water-level gradient ranging from shallow ground water to standing water along the Platte River in central Nebraska, USA. Non-linear models, unlike polynomials, have coefficients that can be interpreted with a biological meaning such as population peak, optimum gradient position, and ecological amplitude. Sixty-three riparian grassland species had sufficient information to link their plant frequency to the water-level gradient. From among 10 water-level summary statistics evaluated for a subset of 22 species, the best plant-frequency response curves were obtained by using the growing season 10% cumulative frequency water level, followed closely by the growing season 7-day moving average high water level and two other high water-level statistics. This suggests that for Platte River riparian grasslands, high water levels are more influential than mean, median, or low water levels. Land-management practices (i.e., grazing, haying, and extended rest) affected six species by a change in frequency or a shift in position along the water-level gradient. Four general plant communities composed of species responding individually to the water-level gradient and other factors were identified for Platte River riparian grasslands: emergent, sedge meadow, mesic prairie, and dry ridge. Plant response curves are the first step toward predicting how plants responding to riparian-grassland water levels might also respond to river management.
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Vol. 24 • No. 3