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Shortgrass Steppe Long-Term Ecological Research Site

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Shortgrass Steppe Long Term Ecological Research  (Colorado State University)

Research Focus

The Shortgrass Steppe (SGS) Long-Term Ecological Research Site (LTER) site in the central plains of Colorado is unique among North American grasslands for its long history of grazing by large herbivores and periodic droughts. It was initiated in 1982 and has investigated the influences of grazing and other land use, as well as climate, physiography and fire, on the structure, function and dynamics of shortgrass ecosystems. Its research sheds light on the vulnerability of grassland ecosystems to ongoing environmental change.

Research Outcomes

Long-term studies of prairie dog populations at the Shortgrass Steppe LTER revealed links between plague breakouts in prairie dogs and recurring climate events. Other research showed that domestic cattle’s grazing is less important than precipitation for predicting changes in grass production. Analyzing a 23-year dataset, SGS researchers also found that average annual minimum temperatures were increasing and had a negative impact on the production of blue grama grass—a dominant forage plant for cattle--and a positive effect on the production of exotic, annual species. The study provided scientists with a basis for predictions about how global warming may affect the shortgrass steppe.

In early 2012, the LTER began research designed to simulate severe drought in Great Plains grasslands and to evaluate how the landscape responds – the first large-scale project of its kind. The team planned to install slatted roofs over small plots and monitor the ecological changes. The roofs will remain for four years and allow only 40 percent of rainfall to reach the ground, simulating severe drought similar to that of the 1930's Dust Bowl era. Scientists will study plant and ecosystem productivity at each site, root growth, above-ground plant growth for cattle and overall change in community composition of plants during the simulated drought.

Education & Outreach

The SGS-LTER Schoolyard program includes four public schools in Colorado. Students at each school conduct both short-term and long-term research projects on their school grounds.

The Research Assistantship for Minority High School Students program teams high school students with SGS-LTER scientists, graduate students and a teacher from the school district to give each student a hands-on research experience in the university setting.

SGS-LTER's Research Experience for Teachers program allows K-12 teachers to work on a specific research project during the summer and continue their work during the school year by incorporating what they have learned into their classroom. Teachers travel to field sites, conduct lab analyses and present their findings at national meetings.

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Images (1 of )

  • scenic view of Shortgrass Steppe in Colorado, wide shot
  • photo of two prairie dogs resting on dry earth
Shortgrass Steppe Long-Term Ecological Research Site site in the central plains of Colorado
Julie Church
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Long-term studies of prairie dog populations at the Shortgrass Steppe LTER revealed links between plague breakouts in prairie dogs and recurring climate events.
freedigitalphotos.net
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