Grazing Disturbance Promotes Exotic Annual Grasses by Degrading Soil Biocrust Communities

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Exotic invasive plants threaten ecosystem integrity, and their success depends on a combination of abiotic factors, disturbances, and interactions with existing communities. In dryland ecosystems, soil biocrusts (communities of lichens, bryophytes, and microorganisms) can limit favorable microsites needed for invasive species establishment, but the relative importance of biocrusts for landscape‐scale invasion patterns remains poorly understood. We examine effects of livestock grazing in habitats at high risk for invasion to test the hypothesis that disturbance indirectly favors exotic annual grasses by reducing biocrust cover. We present some of the first evidence that biocrusts increase site resistance to invasion at a landscape scale and mediate the effects of disturbance. Biocrust species richness, which is reduced by livestock grazing, also appears to promote native perennial grasses. Short mosses, as a functional group, appear to be particularly valuable for preventing invasion by exotic annual grasses. Our study suggests that maintaining biocrust communities with high cover, species richness, and cover of short mosses can increase resistance to invasion. These results highlight the potential of soil surface communities to mediate invasion dynamics and suggest promising avenues for restoration in dryland ecosystems.