Spatio-temporal variation in foodscapes modifies deer browsing impact on vegetation
Ungulate browsers often alter plant composition and reduce diversity in forests worldwide, yet our ability to predict browse impact on vegetation remains equivocal. Theory suggests, however, that ungulate distribution and foraging impacts are shaped by scale-dependent decisions based on variation in habitat composition and structure encountered within their home range.
Examine how variation in habitat composition at landscape (259 ha) scales modulates browse impact on vegetation at local scales.
We measured vegetation richness and abundance in plots with and without white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) at 23 northern hardwood forest sites distributed across a 6500 km2 area in Pennsylvania, USA. Experimental sites were embedded within landscapes with varying levels of habitat composition and deer densities.
Browsing reduced vegetation richness and cover by as much as 53 and 70%, respectively; however, we found browse impact was modulated by variation in the relative abundance of managed habitats that alter forage availability. Specifically, relative to fenced areas, browse impact weakened and ultimately disappeared as the proportion of forage-rich habitats (e.g., recent harvests) increased to ≥20%. Conversely, vegetation grew increasingly depauperate as landscapes contained greater proportions of forage-poor habitats (i.e., older harvests), particularly when browsed.
Our results underscore how management actions that alter forage availability to ungulates throughout the landscape (i.e. the foodscape) can shape forest-ungulate interactions and suggest a new paradigm whereby managers evaluate and undertake actions at the appropriate spatio-temporal scales to proactively limit the deleterious impact of browsing on plant biodiversity.
Publisher URL: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10980-017-0568-x
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