Herbaceous production lost to tree encroachment in United States rangelands

Scott L. Morford, Brady W. Allred, Dirac Twidwell, Matthew O. Jones, Jeremy D. Maestas, Caleb P. Roberts, David E. Naugle

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


Rangelands of the United States provide ecosystem services that benefit society and rural economies. Native tree encroachment is often overlooked as a primary threat to rangelands due to the slow pace of tree cover expansion and the positive public perception of trees. Still, tree encroachment fragments these landscapes and reduces herbaceous production, thereby threatening habitat quality for grassland wildlife and the economic sustainability of animal agriculture. Recent innovations in satellite remote sensing permit the tracking of tree encroachment and the corresponding impact on herbaceous production. We analysed tree cover change and herbaceous production across the western United States from 1990 to 2019. We show that tree encroachment is widespread in US rangelands; absolute tree cover has increased by 50% (77,323 km2) over 30 years, with more than 25% (684,852 km2) of US rangeland area experiencing tree cover expansion. Since 1990, 302 ± 30 Tg of herbaceous biomass have been lost. Accounting for variability in livestock biomass utilization and forage value reveals that this lost production is valued at between $4.1–$5.6 billion US dollars. Synthesis and applications. The magnitude of impact of tree encroachment on rangeland loss is similar to conversion to cropland, another well-known and primary mechanism of rangeland loss in the US Prioritizing conservation efforts to prevent tree encroachment can bolster ecosystem and economic sustainability, particularly among privately-owned lands threatened by land-use conversion.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2971-2982
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Applied Ecology
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2022


  • afforestation
  • agricultural land use
  • global change
  • herbaceous production
  • woody encroachment
  • yield gap


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