Austin Rutherford, a Ph.D. Candidate in the Ecology, Management, and Restoration of Rangelands program, was recently selected to receive a Global Change GIDP Summer Research Award. The Award provides summer financial support for Global Change Ph.D. Minor students to advance their interdisciplinary research during a time of reduced funding and travel restrictions.
Nestled in the grassy foothills of the Santa Rita Mountains, Austin has set up a series of experimental plots designed to tease apart which conditions lead to successful shrub recruitment. Shrub encroachment is a prominent threat to grassland ecosystems in the Southwest, where increases in shrub density reduces available habitat for native grassland species, including songbirds, mammals, and insects, as well as forage for livestock. Though these increases in shrub density are a global phenomenon occurring on nearly every continent, the reasons for the vegetation shifts vary widely by region and the exact conditions that favor such a shift remain highly debated.
His dissertation research seeks to develop proactive alternatives to the traditional reactive approaches to the phenomenon of woody plant encroachment in grasslands. He uses field experiments in Sonoran Desert grasslands currently encroached by shrubs to understand the ecological mechanisms of how shrubs gain their initial foothold. Insights on these experimental results inform the development of a web-based, decision support tool to provide stakeholders with a ‘heads up’ regarding shrub encroachment potential in their areas of interest to begin planning and prioritizing possible intervention strategies and restoration options.