Academic journal article The American Midland Naturalist

Presence of Both Active and Inactive Colonies of Prairie Dogs Contributes to Higher Vegetation Heterogeneity at the Landscape Scale

Academic journal article The American Midland Naturalist

Presence of Both Active and Inactive Colonies of Prairie Dogs Contributes to Higher Vegetation Heterogeneity at the Landscape Scale

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Different ecological processes (e.g. grazing by prairie dogs and bison, wallowing by bison, and fire) are natural components of the prairie ecosystem that affect its species composition. Understanding the role of these different processes on plant communities is valuable for improved conservation management of the remaining natural grassland.

Black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovidanus) - hereafter simply "prairie dogs" - are burrowing mammals known to impact grassland landscapes and are often considered as keystone species (Kotliar et al, 1999; Kotliar et al, 2000, Kotliar et al., 2006; Miller et al., 1994). Prairie dogs numbered about five billion individuals in the late nineteenth century and their colonies occupied millions of hectares in the U.S.A., Canada, and Mexico. However, range managers perceived prairie dogs as competing with domestic livestock and prairie dogs were often killed. Persecution, habitat destruction, and disease (i.e. sylvatic plague) are the main factors behind the reduction in prairie dog populations to less than two percent of their historic numbers about 200 years ago (Hoogland, 2006).

Several animal species rely to some extent on the occurrence of prairie dogs (Augustine and Baker, 2012; Lomolino and Smith, 2003) and the loss of prairie dogs may be a threat to the overall diversity of the prairie ecosystem (Miller et al., 1994; Sampson and Knopf, 1994). For example, prairie dogs are important to the burrowing owl (Athene cuniculario) that nests in prairie dogs' burrows (Restani et al., 2001) and to the black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) that preys on the prairie dogs and depend on their burrows for shelter (Reading and Matchett, 1997). The burrowing and grazing activities of prairie dogs also influence the prairie vegetation (Archer et al., 1987; Bonham and Lerwick, 1976; Coppock et al., 1983; Johnson-Nistler et al., 2004; Weltzin et al, 1997a; Whicker and Detling, 1988). For example, Coppock et al. (1983) found grasses dominate areas recently colonized by prairie dogs and forbs increase over time following colonization. Late in the colonization process, they found both forbs and sub-shrubs (Artemisia frigida) dominated. Furthermore, Klatt and Hein (1978) studied the vegetation in one active prairie dog colony and three colonies that had been inactive for 1, 2, and 5 y, respectively. They found the cover of perennial grasses to be highest in the active colony and decreasing with time after abandonment. In addition, they found markedly more species of forbs in the area abandoned by prairie dogs for 1 у as compared to the other areas. However, studies of the vegetation within inactive prairie dog colonies are limited (Klatt and Hein, 1978; Osborn and Allan, 1949). The goal of our study was to assess the effect of black-tailed prairie dogs on plant species richness and plant composition within both active and inactive prairie dog colonies compared to control areas with no history of prairie dog presence. Because the presence of different "disturbance" levels creates greater vegetation heterogeneity in the landscape, we hypothesized that the presence of both active and inactive prairie dog colonies would influence vegetation heterogeneity more than the presence of active colonies alone.

Methods

study SITE

Vegetation was sampled from May to July 2013 at Sun Prairie on the American Prairie Reserve (APR) (47°74'46"N, 107°77'59"W) just north of the Missouri River and the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge in Phillips County, Montana (Fig. 1). Precipitation in Sun Prairie averages 280 mm annually. Winters are cold with a long-term January average of-13.3 C, whereas summers are warm with a long-term July average of 19.2 C. The frost-free growing season averages 112 d and begins mid-May. The study area is at the southern tip of the glaciated plains and topography varies from flat plains to gently sloping hills (JohnsonNistler et at, 2004).

The region is a top priority for grassland conservation due to its wildlife species and intact native vegetation (TNC, 1999). …

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