Livestock grazing: animal and plant biodiversity of shortgrass steppe and the relationship to ecosystem function

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Abstract

We synthesized published and unpublished data from long-term grazing treatments in North American shortgrass steppe on diversity and abundance of plants, lagomorphs, rodents, birds, aboveground and belowground macroarthropods, microarthropods, and nematodes. The relatively small response of the plant community to grazing provides an opportunity to address some broad questions concerning relationships among responses of structural and functional aspects of systems in general. Are there consistencies in diversity and abundance responses to grazing among groups of organisms? Are some groups more sensitive than others, or do responses mirror that of vegetation? Are the responses in terms of biodiversity related to ecosystem-level functional responses?

Diversity, abundance, dominance, and dissimilarity responses to long-term grazing were highly variable across classes of organisms. Some groups of consumers displayed large differences among treatments even though differences in plant community attributes were relatively minor. Some responses were large even when comparing ungrazed to lightly or lightly to moderately grazed treatments. Birds appear to be particularly responsive to grazing. Differences among treatments in richness within groups other than plants and birds were relatively minor, especially when compared to large declines in abundance of some groups with increasing grazing intensity. For the well-studied groups (plants and birds), shifts in species in terms of 'quality' factors, such as exotic, endemic, and rare, generally suggest that livestock grazing may be more similar to conditions in recent evolutionary time in this particular system than would conditions resulting from the removal of the exotic, domestic grazers that appear to functionally serve as a surrogate to bison.

Trophic structure composition did not vary greatly across grazing treatments. Further, large effects of grazing on some consumer groups did not translate into similarly large effects on ecosystem processes such as primary production or soil nutrient pools and cycling rates.

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