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Herbivory strains resilience in drought-prone aspen landscapes of the western United States

By Paul C. Rogers


Aims: Aspen forests around the northern hemisphere provide rich biodiversity compared to surrounding vegetation types. In both North America and Europe, however, aspen are threatened by a variety of human impacts: clear-felling, land development, water diversions, fire suppression, and both wild and domestic ungulate herbivory. We conducted a landscape assessment of quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) for the purpose of identifying key components of resilience. Specifically, we strove to test novel measures linking plant-animal interactions, compare crucial functional differences in aspen types, and make appropriate restorative recommendations based on the outcome of these assessments. Location: The Book Cliffs region of eastern Utah and western Colorado, USA. Methods: Seventy-seven one hectare plots were sampled for forest structure, composition, regeneration and recruitment, landscape elements, browse level, and herbivore use. Use was determined by counting the number of pellet groups by ungulate species at each sample location. We tested the efficacy of a visual stand condition rating system when compared to objective metrics. A series of non-parametric analyses were used to compare functional aspen types and stand condition groups by key variables. Nonmetric multidimensional scaling (NMS) allowed us to explore all our data to find the most critical measures of aspen stand conditions for the purpose of better informing future aspen monitoring. Results: Results indicate that plots differed significantly by seral or stable aspen functional types, stand condition rating, and browse species use. Ordination analysis revealed that regeneration level and herbivore use were the strongest objective indicators of aspen stand conditions, while the stand condition rating proved a valuable subjective index of forest status. While ungulate herbivory of aspen is problematic internationally, our results show acute impacts where moderate slopes, relatively low water availability, and intense browsing predominate. Conclusions: Appropriate measures of aspen communities, informed by crucial functional divisions, have allowed us to gain a clear understanding of conditions across this large landscape. Overall, aspen in our study landscape is highly vulnerable to collapse due to narrow physiographic and climate limitations and browse levels. Without herbivory reduction, future conservation in such areas will be strained and widespread system failure may occur

Topics: biodiversity, climate, conservation, deer, elk, ungulates, forest ecology, livestock, ordination, Populus tremuloides, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
Publisher: Hosted by Utah State University Libraries
Year: 2014
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Provided by: DigitalCommons@USU
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