Dynamics of Plains Cottonwood (Populus Deltoides) Forest and Historical Landscape Change along Unchannelized Segments of the Missouri River, USA

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Riparian Vegetation, Flow Regulation, Dams, Channel Change, Great Plains


Construction of six large dams and reservoirs on the Missouri River over the last 50–75 years has resulted in major landscape changes and alterations in flow patterns, with implications for riparian forests dominated by plains cottonwood (Populus deltoides). We quantified changes in land cover from 1892–1950s and the 1950s– 2006 and the current extent and age structure of cottonwood forests on seven segments (two reservoir and five remnant floodplain) comprising 1127 km (53 %) of the unchannelized upper two-thirds of the Missouri River. Riparian forest area declined by 49 %; grassland 61 %; shrubland 52 %; and sandbar habitat 96 %; while agricultural cropland increased six-fold and river/reservoir surface area doubled from 1892 to 2006. Net rates of erosion and accretion declined between the 1892–1950s and 1950s– 2006 periods. Accretion exceeded erosion on remnant floodplain segments, resulting in declines in active channel width, particularly in 1950s–2006. Across all study segments in 2006, most cottonwood stands (67 %) were [50 years old, 22 % were 25–50 years old, and only 10 % were \25 years old. Among stands \50 years old, the higher proportion of 25–50 year old stands represents recruitment that accompanied initial post-dam channel narrowing; while declines in sandbar and shrubland area and the low proportion of stands \25 years old suggest declines in geomorphic dynamism and limited recruitment under recent river management. Future conservation and restoration efforts should focus both on limiting further loss of remnant cottonwood stands and developing approaches to restore river dynamics and cottonwood recruitment processes.

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Environmental Management



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