• Shrub Litter Production in a Sagebrush-Steppe Ecosystem: Rodent Population Cycles as a Regulating Factor

      Parmenter, R. R.; Mesch, M. R.; MacMahon, MacMahon. J. A. (Society for Range Management, 1987-01-01)
      This study examines the impact of long-tailed vole (Microtus longicaudus) and deer mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus) population changes and their feeding behavior on shrub populations and the resulting litter production in a shrub-steppe ecosystem in southwestern Wyoming. Rodent populations were monitored on 3 replicate plots over a 3-yr period. Populations peaked in autumn 1983 and declined to lower levels in 1984-86. Damage to shrubs (in the form of bark-stripping and girdling) was observed after the winter of 1983-84, but not after the winters of 1984-85 and 1985-86. We assessed damage to shrubs on 4 sites. Extent of damage, mortality, and biomass-to-litter transformations were quantified. We found that: (1) 21% of all shrubs and 28% of the big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) sustained rodent damage; (2) 1% of all shrubs were killed as a result of girdling; (3) mean biomass lost from shrubs that suffered damage was 36%; (4) total aboveground biomass loss occurring on big sagebrush was 231 kg/ha or 4% of the standing crop. These results indicate that rodents feeding on big sagebrush can periodically increase annual rates of litter production by as much as 69% above "normal." Rodents in the sagebrush-steppe ultimately influence ecosystem-level nutrient cycles by accelerating shrub litter production, and may affect plant species composition via feeding-induced shrub mortality.