Plants live in tight association with microbes, especially belowground where fungi and bacteria live on and inside the roots of plants. The relationship can be beneficial or harmful to the plant. Some microbes cause plant diseases by decomposing roots. Others trade nutrients with the roots in return for sugars produced aboveground by leaves.
We investigate two main aspects of the relationship between plants and microbes in the soil. First, as it pertains to weeds, we want to know if soil microbes can help or hinder plant invasions. Three highly invasive weeds of contrasting life history strategies; cheatgrass, knapweed and leafy spurge, co-occur with remnants of native plant vegetation. This creates a unique opportunity to observe, characterize, and manipulate interactions between plants and belowground microbial communities. We outline a number of short, intermediate and long-term research projects that will significantly enhance our knowledge regarding plant microbe interactions and soil processes, with the overall goal to better understand, predict and counteract plant invasions, and to restore and manage invaded ecosystems.
Second, we seek to understand how the relationship between plants and soil influences the function of ecosystem processes. Soil microbes are responsible for organic matter decomposition and nutrient cycling between the atmosphere and the land. On this project we collaborate with the Earth Microbiome Project (EMP). The goal is to map and understand the diversity of microorganisms in habitats around the world. We mapped microbial diversity and function across gradients of weed invasions.
Humans have exerted a major influence on plant communities across MPG Ranch that began with fires set by the Native American and continued with intensive livestock grazing, farming, and herbicide applications. The overall result of these activities is that low diversity and low productivity plant communities composed mainly of non-native plants cover many areas. In many cases the existing undesired vegetation is hardy and resistant to replacement, after all it is the stuff that has survived grazing, herbicide applications, and the ranch’s harsh climate. The updates and reports in this section show the approaches we take to figure out the best ways to restore diverse and productive plant communities. The Restoration Map under the maps heading is the best way to explore our restoration work. The map interface allows researchers to explain our methods and research in a chronological and spatial context. Abstracts and links to major updates and plans will be visible on this page.
Rangeland diversification- In some cases we use herbicide applications combined with fire and drill seeding to establish new communities.
Assisted Succession- We have also developed a new approach to restoration of weedy areas using a naturally herbicide resistant initial plant to reclaim weed infestations. The plant is called sainfoin. It is a legume that enriches the soil and allows us to kill-off the weeds seed bank before we re-plant.
We primarily use PCR DNA extraction. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is a technique used in molecular biology to amplify a single copy or a few copies of a segment of DNA across several orders of magnitude, generating thousands to millions of copies of a particular DNA sequence.
We seek to understand the distribution and abundance of mammals. Several monitoring projects are underway.
Elk- Elk numbers fluctuate through the year with herds of several hundred animals moving onto the ranch in the fall and winter. Fewer elk stay around to raise their calves in the spring and summer. We track herd size, the habitat they use for feeding, and the amount of biomass available to them for forage. We are curious about how elk habits will change in response to changes in vegetation communities as restoration activities proceed.
Bears- The lower elevation draws and drainages at MPG were de-vegetated by herbicide applications and sheep and cattle browsing. As of the summer 2012, we have planted more than 30,000 trees and shrubs in these drainages. The plantings will provide cover for animals using the draw bottoms as travel corridors between the upland forests and the floodplain forests. Many of the shrubs we have planted, such as hawthorns, choke cherries, and serviceberry, will provide food for bears. Our bear monitoring efforts seek to document how many bears we have now and where they travel.
Click here for a link to a list of mammals we have seen and photos.