Exotic species drive patterns of plant species diversity in 93 restored tallgrass prairies
A primary goal of restoration ecology is to understand the factors that generate variability in species diversity and composition among restorations. Plant communities may assemble deterministically toward a common community type, or they may assemble stochastically, ending differently because of weather conditions during establishment, soil legacy effects, or exotic species propagule pressure. To test these alternative hypotheses, we sampled plant communities and soil at 93 randomly selected restored prairies distributed throughout Iowa, USA. Five remnant sites were sampled as a reference. We tested our hypotheses using multiple regressions and investigated the strength of direct and indirect effects on species diversity and richness using structural equation models. The prairie restorations were highly variable in their age, size, diversity, soil characteristics, and how they were managed post‐seeding. The strongest predictor of plant species richness and diversity was the degree of invasion, as measured by the abundance of exotic species. Restorations planted with species‐rich seed mixes had reduced exotic species abundance, which led indirectly to higher species richness of restorations. Sites with higher organic matter and a more linear shape had a direct positive effect on exotic abundance, which in turn decreased diversity. We found little support for deterministic assembly, and diversity did not increase with the age of planting. Our results indicate that restored prairie communities tend to assemble into states of high or low diversity, driven by invasion from exotic plant species. Management of exotic species is essential for maximizing species diversity in temperate grassland restorations.