Large Herbivores Influence the Composition and Diversity of Shrub-Steppe Communities in the Rocky Mountains, USA

Journal or Book Title: Oecologia

Keywords: Succession; Herbivory; Ungulates; Semi-arid; Sagebrush

Volume/Issue: 146/4

Page Number(s): 641-651

Year Published: 2006


It is widely believed that wild and domestic herbivores have modified the structure and composition of arid and semi-arid plant communities of western North America, but these beliefs have rarely been tested in long-term, well-replicated studies. We examined the effects of removing large herbivores from semi-arid shrublands for 40–50 years using 17 fenced exclosures in western Colorado, USA. Shrub cover was greater (F=5.87, P=0.0020) and cover (F=3.01, P=0.0601) and frequency (F=3.89, P=0.0211) of forbs was less inside the exclosures (protected) relative to grazed plots. However, we found no significant effects (minimum P=0.18) of protection from grazing on cover or frequency of grasses, biotic crusts, or bare soil. Although mean species richness and diversity were similar between treatments, protected areas had much higher dominance by fewer species, primarily sagebrush. Exclusion of herbivores changed the relationship between species richness and evenness. Consistent with theoretical expectations, species evenness was positively correlated with richness in protected plots (r 2=0.54). However, contrary to theory, evenness and richness were inversely related in grazed plots (r 2 adjacent=0.72, r 2 distant=0.84). We suggest that these differences resulted because grazing acts as a stressor promoting facilitative relationships between plant species that might compete for resources in the absence of grazing. We conclude that exclusion of grazing in the sites we studied caused minor changes in cover and diversity of herbaceous plants, but caused a clear increase in the cover of shrubs. Importantly, the exclusion of ungulates changed the relationship between evenness and richness.

DOI: 10.1007/s00442-005-0065-9

Type of Publication: Journal Article