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Climate change will increase the frequency and duration of drought, a phenomenon that may alter terrestrial ecosystems' productivity and function. This year, MPG Ranch has joined the Drought-Net experiment, a global effort to understand better the effects of severe drought on various ecosystem types. There are currently 175 Drought-Net projects covering six continents.

To determine how severe drought (reducing precipitation by 30%) affects our grasslands and how that compares to other grassland Drought-Net sites, we installed eight rainout shelters at the top of Whaley Draw (photos below). Eight plots without rainout shelters will serve as controls. The rainout shelters cover a 3 x 3-meter area where we also installed temperature buttons to quantify if and how the rainout shelters may influence soil temperature. We will also monitor soil moisture regularly to determine how much the rainout shelters reduce water availability

Jeff Clarke and members of the field crew assemble the rainout shelters on a cold spring morning.

A few dominant plant species at this site include rough fescue, Idaho fescue, and silky lupine (photos below).

The study site in early summer 2020 when the plots were selected and surveyed for vegetation cover.

We will assess the effects of drought on plant community composition and biomass every year at peak biomass for five consecutive years. Comparing how plant species composition and biomass tolerate drought will help select species for our restoration projects. While not in the Drought-Net protocol, we will also sample soil yearly to document shifts in soil microbial community composition and function.

Rainout shelter installation is complete and ready for monitoring.

About the Author

Mary Ellyn DuPre

Mary Ellyn graduated from East Tennessee State University in 2013 with a B.S. in Biology and a concentration in plant sciences. She moved to Montana in 2014 to pursue a career in plant ecology and worked for the U.S. Forest Service and MPG Ranch as a seasonal field botanist. In 2020, she completed her M.S. in Land Resources and Environmental Sciences at Montana State University where her research focused on investigating the impacts of crop diversity on insects, weeds, and soil microbial communities in an agroecosystem located northcentral Montana. This experience allowed her to study the inner workings of ecosystems and inspired her to continue studying ecology in natural ecosystems at MPG Ranch. In her spare time, Mary Ellyn enjoys gardening, hunting, fishing, and cooking.