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Rapid assessment of juniper distribution in prairie landscapes of the northern Great Plains

Abstract

Woody plant species including eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) and Rocky Mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum) are expanding throughout the prairie ecosystems of the Great Plains because of fire suppression, land management practices, and climate change. Juniper encroachment threatens native grasslands by altering soil characteristics, limiting herbaceous biomass, hindering native plant regeneration, and reducing rangeland productivity. Existing land cover products do not effectively characterize the distribution of juniper over a range of densities, making it difficult to assess the scale of the problem. We evaluated a method for rapid classification and mapping of juniper using matched filtering with Landsat 8 snow-covered and snow-free winter imagery (January-March), and snow-free spring imagery (April–June) for 2015–2016. We used data from two path/rows (29/30 and 30/30) in southeastern South Dakota and northeastern Nebraska (approximately 23,000 km2). In both path/rows, we found that snow-covered winter images increased contrast between juniper and the image background and resulted in the highest overall classification accuracies of 94.5% and 88.9% for juniper densities above 15%, compared to 91.4% and 85.7% for snow-free winter imagery and 57.8% and 74.1% for growing season imagery. Using winter imagery, we successfully captured pixels containing juniper density above 50% with ≥90% detection probability. However, the true positive rate dropped to less than 50% once juniper density fell below 20%. We identified 84 791 ha within the study area occupied by juniper (3.6% of the total area), including 27 504 ha in deciduous forests (33% of deciduous forest area) and 38 738 ha in grasslands (6% of grassland area).

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