Grassland plant communities along the Colorado Front Range are responding to directional changes in climate, increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, increased nitrogen deposition, and invasion by many non-native plant species introduced by humans over the last century. A warmer climate and relatively wetter non-growing season appear to support a new group of plant species adapted to the new conditions. These species may also be affecting the ecological role of an important plant consumer known to have very large impacts on the biological diversity of grasslands. Prairie dogs, animals whose presence is critical to the presence of many other species, are believed to interact with invasive plants such that plant community dynamics are dramatically altered from what they were under historical reference conditions. This study will measure how the new plant species are exploiting climate and resource changes, document how grazing activities by prairie dogs are influenced by these species, and assess the effects of the interactions on plant species change and soil erosion.
This research is important because it tests the hypothesis that directional changes in climate and concurrent changes in plant species can alter the role that an animal has in maintaining the structure and function of grassland communities. This project will train undergraduate students, graduate students, and a postdoctoral researcher in environmental change ecology, and will provide the subject material for a senior-graduate course in scenario planning for natural areas in an era of rapid environmental change. The researchers will use this study to engage K-12 students, teachers, stakeholders and managers in searching for solutions to conservation problems.