Modelling the dynamics of feral alfalfa populations and its management implications.
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BACKGROUND: Feral populations of cultivated crops can pose challenges to novel trait confinement within agricultural landscapes. Simulation models can be helpful in investigating the underlying dynamics of feral populations and determining suitable management options. METHODOLOGY/PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: We developed a stage-structured matrix population model for roadside feral alfalfa populations occurring in southern Manitoba, Canada. The model accounted for the existence of density-dependence and recruitment subsidy in feral populations. We used the model to investigate the long-term dynamics of feral alfalfa populations, and to evaluate the effectiveness of simulated management strategies such as herbicide application and mowing in controlling feral alfalfa. Results suggest that alfalfa populations occurring in roadside habitats can be persistent and less likely to go extinct under current roadverge management scenarios. Management attempts focused on controlling adult plants alone can be counterproductive due to the presence of density-dependent effects. Targeted herbicide application, which can achieve complete control of seedlings, rosettes and established plants, will be an effective strategy, but the seedbank population may contribute to new recruits. In regions where roadside mowing is regularly practiced, devising a timely mowing strategy (early- to mid-August for southern Manitoba), one that can totally prevent seed production, will be a feasible option for managing feral alfalfa populations. CONCLUSIONS/SIGNIFICANCE: Feral alfalfa populations can be persistent in roadside habitats. Timely mowing or regular targeted herbicide application will be effective in managing feral alfalfa populations and limit feral-population-mediated gene flow in alfalfa. However, in the context of novel trait confinement, the extent to which feral alfalfa populations need to be managed will be dictated by the tolerance levels established by specific production systems for specific traits. The modelling framework outlined in this paper could be applied to other perennial herbaceous plants with similar life-history characteristics.