Multi-scale drivers of soil resistance predict vulnerability of seasonally wet meadows to trampling by pack stock animals in the Sierra Nevada, USA
Published Web Locationhttps://doi.org/10.1186/s13717-020-00236-7
Abstract: Background: Meadow ecosystems have important ecological functions and support socioeconomic services, yet are subject to multiple stressors that can lead to rapid degradation. In the Sierra Nevada of the western USA, recreational pack stock (horses and mules) use in seasonally wet mountain meadows may lead to soil trampling and meadow degradation, especially when soil water content is high and vegetation is developing. Methods: In order to improve the ability to predict meadow vulnerability to soil disturbance from pack stock use, we measured soil resistance (SR), which is an index of vulnerability to trampling disturbance, at two spatial scales using a stratified-random sampling design. We then compared SR to several soil and vegetation explanatory variables that were also measured at the two spatial scales: plant community type (local scale) and topographic gradient class (meadow scale). Results: We found that local-scale differences in drivers of SR were contingent on the meadow scale, which is important because multiple spatial scale evaluation of ecological metrics provides a broader understanding of the potential controls on ecological processes than assessments conducted at a single spatial scale. We also found two contrasting explanatory models for drivers of SR at the local scale: (1) soil gravimetric water content effects on soil disaggregation and (2) soil bulk density and root mass influence on soil cohesion. Soil resistance was insufficient to sustain pack stock use without incurring soil deformation in wet plant communities, even when plant cover was maximal during a major drought. Conclusions: Our study provides new information on seasonally wet meadow vulnerability to trampling by pack stock animals using multi-scale drivers of SR, including the contrasting roles of soil disaggregation, friction, and cohesion. Our work aims to inform meadow management efforts in the Sierra Nevada and herbaceous ecosystems in similar regions that are subject to seasonal soil saturation and livestock use.