Wetlands Reserve Program restorations improve floristic quality of understory plant community over time, but community differs from reference wetlands

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Restoration Ecology


The lower Mississippi River Valley and connecting tributaries have lost an estimated 80% of original bottomland hardwood forested wetlands to agricultural conversion. For the past three decades, the Wetlands Reserve Program has restored thousands of wetlands with the objective of recovering wetland functions and supporting wildlife diversity. To inform future restoration decisions, we assessed the recovery of the naturally colonizing understory plant community in wetlands restored from row-crop agriculture in western Kentucky, U.S.A. We measured six floristic variables in 16 wetlands along a gradient of disturbance (degraded, restored, and reference) and a chronosequence ranging from 0 to 13 years since restoration. We found that reference wetlands had significantly higher floristic quality and a higher proportion of woody and perennial species than restored wetlands. Over time, the proportion of non-native species decreased in restored wetlands and floristic quality increased. The successional trajectory of naturally colonizing plant communities in restored wetlands was likely inhibited by dispersal limitations, thus future projects should focus on optimizing project locations to increase recruitment, continue afforestation efforts for heavy seeded trees, and consider planting native understory species. Long-term project monitoring, approximately three decades, will likely provide deeper insight into recovery trajectory. With ongoing biodiversity loss and the effects of climate change, the success of wetland restorations has important local and global implications.



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