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Disturbance regimes and mountain plover habitat in shortgrass steppe: Large herbivore grazing does not substitute for prairie dog grazing or fire

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Restoring historical disturbance regimes to enhance habitat for grassland birds can conflict with livestock production goals and has been controversial because of uncertainty in the frequency and pattern of different disturbances prior to European settlement. We studied nesting habitat for the mountain plover (Charadrius montanus) in relation to prescribed fire, grazing by large herbivores (cattle), and grazing by black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) in the shortgrass steppe of northeastern Colorado. Breeding mountain plovers primarily occurred on black-tailed prairie dog colonies or areas burned during the previous dormant season. Vegetation surrounding mountain plover nests and foraging locations was characterized by a fine-scale mosaic of prostrate (<4 cm tall) vegetated patches interspersed with >35% bare soil in a given square meter, with this fine-scale pattern distributed over a broad (>100-m radius) area. Mountain plovers rarely occupied grassland lacking prairie dogs or recent fire, but those that did selected sites with similar vegetation height and bare soil exposure as sites on burns and prairie dog colonies. Vegetation structure at mountain plover-occupied sites was also similar to random sites on burns and prairie dog colonies, but differed substantially from sites managed only with cattle. Intensive cattle grazing at twice the recommended stocking rate during spring (Mar–May) or summer (May–Oct) for 6 years produced significantly less bare soil than burns and prairie dog colonies, particularly following years with average or above-average precipitation. Thus, intensive cattle grazing did not substitute for prairie dog grazing or fire in terms of effects on vegetation structure and mountain plover habitat. Both prescribed burning and increased size and distribution of black-tailed prairie dog colonies appear to be effective and complementary means to manage for mountain plover breeding habitat in shortgrass steppe. Provision of mountain plover habitat has tradeoffs with traditional management for livestock production. Thus, managers need to clearly define desired outcomes for management to provide multiple ecosystem goods and services.
Augustine, David J. , Derner, Justin D.
ARS submission
Journal of wildlife management 2012 May, v. 76, no. 4
Wildlife Society
Journal Articles, USDA Authors, Peer-Reviewed
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