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Influence of grazing and fire frequency on small-scale plant community structure and resource variability in native tallgrass prairie

Authors

  • G. F. (Ciska) Veen,

  • John M. Blair,

  • Melinda D. Smith,

  • Scott L. Collins


G. F. Veen (g.f.veen@rug.nl), Community and Conservation Ecology Group, Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Studies, Univ. of Groningen, PO Box 14, NL–9750 AA Haren, the Netherlands. – J. M. Blair, Division of Biology, Kansas State Univ., Manhattan, KS 66506, USA. – M. D. Smith, Dept of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Yale Univ., PO Box 208106, New Haven, CT 06520, USA. – S. L. Collins, Dept of Biology, Univ. of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM 87131, USA.

Abstract

In grasslands worldwide, grazing by ungulates and periodic fires are important forces affecting resource availability and plant community structure. It is not clear, however, whether changes in community structure are the direct effects of the disturbance (i.e. fire and grazing) or are mediated indirectly through changes in resource abundance and availability. In North American tallgrass prairies, fire and grazing often have disparate effects on plant resources and plant diversity, yet, little is known about the individual and interactive effects of fire and grazing on resource variability and how that variability relates to heterogeneity in plant community structure, particularly at small scales. We conducted a field study to determine the interactive effects of different long-term fire regimes (annual vs four-year fire frequency) and grazing by native ungulates (Bos bison) on small-scale plant community structure and resource variability (N and light) in native tallgrass prairie. Grazing enhanced light and nitrogen availability, but did not affect small-scale resource variability. In addition, grazing reduced the dominance of C4 grasses which enhanced species richness, diversity and community heterogeneity. In contrast, annual fire increased community dominance and reduced species richness and diversity, particularly in the absence of grazing, but had no effect on community heterogeneity, resource availability and resource variability. Variability in the abundance of resources showed no relationship with community heterogeneity at the scale measured in this study, however we found a relationship between community dominance and heterogeneity. Therefore, we conclude that grazing generated small-scale community heterogeneity in this mesic grassland by directly affecting plant community dominance, rather than indirectly through changes in resource variability.

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