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Eighty Years of Grazing by Cattle Modifies Sagebrush and Bunchgrass Structure
- Kirk W. Davies, Chad S. Boyd, Jon D. Bates
- Rangeland ecology & management 2018 v.71 no.3 pp. 275-280
- Artemisia, birds, canopy gaps, cattle, fuels, fuels (fire ecology), grazing, keystone species, meristems, mortality, probability, rangelands, shrubs, stems, steppes, wildfires, Oregon
- Grazing by cattle is ubiquitous across the sagebrush steppe; however, little is known about its effects on sagebrush and native bunchgrass structure. Understanding the effects of long-term grazing on sagebrush and bunchgrass structure is important because sagebrush is a keystone species and bunchgrasses are the dominant herbaceous functional group in these communities. To investigate the effects of long-term grazing on sagebrush and bunchgrass structure, we compared nine grazing exclosures with nine adjacent rangelands that were grazed by cattle in southeast Oregon. Grazing was moderate utilization (30−45%) with altering season of use and infrequent rest. Long-term grazing by cattle altered some structural aspects of bunchgrasses and sagebrush. Ungrazed bunchgrasses had larger dead centers in their crowns, as well as greater dead fuel depths below and above the crown level compared with grazed bunchgrasses. This accumulation of dry fuel near the meristematic tissue may increase the probability of fire-induced mortality during a wildfire. Bunchgrasses in the ungrazed treatment had more reproductive stems than those in the long-term grazed treatment. This suggests that seed production of bunchgrasses may be greater in ungrazed areas. Sagebrush height and longest canopy diameter were 15% and 20% greater in the ungrazed compared with the grazed treatment, respectively. However, the bottom of the sagebrush canopy was closer to the ground in the grazed compared with the ungrazed treatment, which may provide better hiding cover for ground-nesting avian species. Sagebrush basal stem diameter, number of stems, amount of dead material in the canopy, canopy gap size, and number of canopy gaps did not differ between ungrazed and grazed treatments. Moderate grazing does not appear to alter the competitive relationship between a generally unpalatable shrub and palatable bunchgrasses. Long-term, moderate grazing appears to have minimal effects to the structure of bunchgrasses and sagebrush, other than reducing the risk of bunchgrass mortality during a fire event.