Tree Recruitment and Survival in Rivers: Influence of Hydrological Processes

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The findings of a 14-year study of tree reproduction and survival in the Platte River, Nebraska, are presented. The study was initiated in 1985 to determine the causes and remedies of woodland expansion and channel narrowing, which have reduced potential roosting habitat for migratory avifauna such as the whooping crane and sandhill crane. A total of 296 relocatable sites, constituting some 600 plots with Populus and Salix seedlings, was selected and sampled within two reaches near Shelton and Odessa, Nebraska. The fate of some 37 000 tree seedlings was monitored within the plot network. Tree recruitment is controlled largely by stream flow in June. Populus and Salix produce large numbers of seedlings in the river bed in most years, indicating the potential for high rates of woodland expansion. On average, in only 1 year in 7 is stream flow in June high enough to preclude Populus and Salix recruitment. Seedling mortality is dominated by two environmental factors: summer stream flow pulses from thunderstorms, which erode or bury new germinants, and river bed restructuring by moving ice in winter. A third factor, seedling mortality by desiccation during summer droughts, does occur but at a low frequency. Plots of seedlings had extremely low survival rates over the course of the study. Forty-two per cent of the plots lost all seedlings by the first remeasurement (July to September), 36% by the second measurement (May), and 10% by the third remeasurement (July). Thus nearly 90% of the plots had lost all tree seedlings by the end of the first year. These results explain why the Platte River has come into dynamic equilibrium with respect to the balance between active channel and woodland area. Low rates of new woodland expansion are counterbalanced by erosion of established woodland. The demographic approach to studying ecohydrology can be adapted to monitor the effectiveness of prescribed flows as insurance against future narrowing. Flows prescribed at key times to raise seedling mortality rates are recommended to maintain or widen channels, rather than mechanical clearing of established woodland.

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Hydrological Processes





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