• Patch burn grazing management in a semiarid grassland: Consequences for pronghorn, plains pricklypear, and wind erosion

      Augustine, D. J.; Derner, J. D. (Society for Range Management, 2015-01)
      Management strategies that allow for spatiotemporal interactions between fire and herbivores can potentially achieve multiple management goals related to livestock production and wildlife conservation, but little is known about such interactions in semiarid grasslands where fire has traditionally been viewed as having few management applications. We studied patch burn grazing management in the shortgrass steppe of northeastern Colorado, comparing unburned pastures to pastures where 25% of the area was burned in October or November each year over 4 years. Our objective was to examine the interactive effects of patch burns and the subsequent response by pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) on plains pricklypear (Opuntia polyacantha) and wind erosion rates. We monitored abundance of plains pricklypear and wind erosion rates throughout the experiment and quantified seasonal pronghorn densities and postburn damage to plains pricklypear cladodes during the latter 2 years of the study. Pronghorn density was 26 times greater in winter and 7 times greater in spring on patch burns compared with unburned pastures. By late winter, densities of bitten or uprooted plains pricklypear cladodes were five times greater on patch burns compared with unburned pastures. Patch burns, as well as the subsequent response of pronghorn, reduced plains pricklypear density by 54-71% during the first year after the burns, and density remained suppressed for up to 6 years after burns. Wind erosion rates on patch burns were greater compared with unburned pastures but were two orders of magnitude lower than rates measured on fallow croplands in the region. Autumn patch burns can be a valuable means to suppress plains pricklypear and thereby increase grass available for livestock consumption in the shortgrass steppe. These outcomes can be achieved without increasing wind erosion in a manner that threatens long-term soil sustainability and without negative consequences for livestock weight gains.
    • Testing for Thresholds in a Semiarid Grassland: The Influence of Prairie Dogs and Plague

      Augustine, D. J.; Derner, J. D.; Detling, J. K. (Society for Range Management, 2014-11)
      State-and-transition models for semiarid grasslands in the North American Great Plains suggest that the presence of herbivorous black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) on a site 1) creates a vegetation state characterized by increased dominance of annual forbs and unpalatable bunchgrasses and increased bare soil exposure and 2) requires long-term (> 40 yr) prairie dog removal to transition back to a vegetation state dominated by palatable perennial grasses. Here, we examine 1) how the recent history of prairie dog occupancy on a site (1–10 yr) influences the magnitude of prairie dog effects on vegetation composition and 2) how occupancy history affects vegetation dynamics following extirpation of prairie dogs. We used a natural experiment in the shortgrass steppe of northeastern Colorado, USA, where prairie dogs were extirpated from multiple sites during an outbreak of epizootic plague. On sites occupied by prairie dogs for 1–4 yr prior to extirpation, plant cover and composition recovered to conditions similar to unoccupied sites within a single growing season. Larger reductions in perennial C4 grasses occurred on sites occupied for the prior 7–10 yr compared to sites with shorter occupancy histories (< 6 yr). On sites occupied for the prior 7–10 yr, C4 perennial grasses recovered after 5 yr following prairie dog extirpation; in addition, C3 perennial graminoids and forbs remained more abundant (compared to sites with no history of prairie dogs) throughout the 5-yr period. Our findings showcase that prior site occupancy (up to 10 yr) by prairie dogs did not induce irreversible shifts in vegetation state in this semiarid grassland. Rather, vegetation changes induced by prairie dogs represent primarily a phase shift in landscapes where prairie dog populations are regulated by epizootic plague. © 2014 Society for Range Management