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Keywords:

  • Exclosure;
  • Grazing;
  • Livestock;
  • Prairie dog
  • Kartesz (1994).

Abstract. Responses of plant communities to mammalian herbivores vary widely, due to variation in plant species composition, herbivore densities, forage preferences, soils, and climate. In this study, we evaluated vegetation changes on 30 sites within and adjacent to the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge (SNWR) in central New Mexico, USA, over a 20-yr period following removal of the major herbivores (livestock and prairie dogs) in 1972–1975. The study sites were established in 1976, and were resampled in 1986 and 1996 using line transect methods. At the landscape scale, repeated measures ANOVA of percentage cover measurements showed no significant overall net changes in total perennial plant basal cover, either with or without herbivores present; however, there was an overall increase in annual forbs and plant litter from 1976 to 1996. At the site scale, significant changes in species composition and dominance were observed both through time and across the SNWR boundary. Site histories varied widely, with sites dominated by Bouteloua eriopoda being the most dynamic and sites dominated by Scleropogon brevifolius being the most persistent. Species-specific changes also were observed across multiple sites: B. eriopoda cover increased while Gutierrezia sarothrae greatly decreased. The non-uniform, multi-directional changes of the sites' vegetation acted to prevent detection of overall changes in perennial vegetation at the landscape level. Some sites displayed significant changes after removal of herbivores, while others appeared to respond primarily to climate dynamics. Certain species that were not preferred by livestock or prairie dogs, showed overall declines during drought periods, while other preferred species exhibited widespread increases during wetter periods regardless of herbivore presence. Therefore, the vegetation dynamics cannot be attributed solely to removal of herbivores, and in some cases can be explained by short- and long-term fluctuations in climate. These results emphasize the variety of responses of sites with differences in vegetation to mammalian herbivores under otherwise similar climatic conditions, and illustrate the value of site- and landscape-scale approaches to understanding the impacts of plant-herbivore interactions.