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Keywords:

  • biodiversity;
  • determinants of plant community diversity and structure;
  • grey wolf (Canis lupus);
  • herbivory;
  • Northern White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis);
  • species–area relationship;
  • trophic cascades;
  • vegetation dynamics;
  • white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus);
  • Wisconsin

Summary

  1. We tested the hypothesis that wolves are reducing local browse intensity by white-tailed deer, thus indirectly mitigating the biotic impoverishment of understorey plant communities in northern Wisconsin.
  2. To assess the potential for such a top-down trophic cascade response, we developed a spatially and temporally explicit model of wolf territory occupancy based on three decades of wolf monitoring data. Using a nested multiscale vegetation survey protocol, we compared the understorey plant communities of northern white cedar wetlands found in high wolf areas with control sites found in low wolf areas.
  3. We fit species–area curves for plant species grouped by vegetation growth form (based on their predicted response to release from herbivory, i.e. tree, seedling, shrub, forb, grass, sedge or fern) and duration of wolf territory occupancy.
  4. As predicted for a trophic cascade response, forb species richness at local scales (10 m2) was significantly higher in high wolf areas (high wolf areas: 10.7 ± 0.9, N = 16, low wolf areas: 7.5 ± 0.9, N = 16, < 0.001), as was shrub species richness (high wolf areas: 4.4 ± 0.4, N = 16, low wolf areas: 3.2 ± 0.5, N = 16, < 0.001). Also as predicted, percentage cover of ferns was lower in high wolf areas (high wolf areas: 6.2 ± 2.1, N = 16, low wolf areas: 11.6 ± 5.3, N = 16, < 0.05).
  5. Beta richness was similar between high and low wolf areas, supporting earlier assumptions that deer herbivory impacts plant species richness primarily at local scales. Sampling at multiple spatial scales revealed that changes in species richness were not consistent across scales nor among vegetation growth forms: forbs showed a stronger response at finer scales (1–100 m2), while shrubs showed a response across relatively broader scales (10–1000 m2).
  6. Synthesis. Our results are consistent with hypothesized trophic effects on understorey plant communities triggered by a keystone predator recovering from regional extinction. In addition, we identified the response variables and spatial scales appropriate for detecting such differences in plant species composition. This study represents the first published evidence of a trophic cascade triggered by wolf recovery in the Great Lakes region.