The role of deer browsing on plant community development and ecosystem functioning during tallgrass prairie restoration

TitleThe role of deer browsing on plant community development and ecosystem functioning during tallgrass prairie restoration
Publication TypeThesis
Year of Publication2014
AuthorsHarris, PT
AdvisorBaer, SG
DegreeMS Thesis
UniversitySouthern Illinois University
CityCarbondale, IL
Thesis TypeM.S. Thesis
Accession NumberKNZ001648
KeywordsEcology; Conservation biology, Plant biology, range management

Tallgrass prairie in North America has been highly reduced and degraded by human activity (e.g. agriculture) and now human facilitated restoration is necessary to preserve and reestablish the biodiversity, structure and function of this system. In historical tallgrass prairie large ungulates (e.g. Bison bison) were keystone species that regulated many ecosystem properties and functions. Today, restored prairie often lacks these historical ungulates and white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) have largely assumed the role of dominant ungulates in small, tallgrass prairie restorations. Little is known about how white-tailed deer affect the development of plant communities and ecosystem function during the onset of prairie restoration. In June 2012 an agricultural field was restored to native prairie species in Konza Prairie Biological Station (KPBS) near Manhattan, KS. Immediately following seeding, experimental plots were established and fences were constructed in half of the plots to excluded white-tailed deer. From 2012 to 2013 deer browse of forbs, aboveground biomass (total, sown forbs, sown grasses, volunteer forbs and volunteer grasses), light availability at the soil surface, soil nutrients, and plant community composition were measure inside and outside of exclosures. The first year of this study occurred during a severe drought which diminished in year two, presenting the opportunity to examine the interaction of climate and deer browse on restoration. In plots where deer had access, the percentage of forbs browsed ranged from 1.3 to 10.5%. The effect of deer browsing on aboveground biomass varied across years for each category of biomass. Total biomass appeared to be regulated more strongly by deer than climate, as unbrowsed plots produced similar biomass in each year despite major climatic variation, while browsed plots did not follow this trend. Across all sampling periods, deer browsing increased light availability by 20%. In year two inorganic N was 19% lower in browsed plots, though potential net N mineralization did not vary between treatments. Plant communities were significantly different between years and, between browsed and unbrowsed plots as time and browsing affected community composition, diversity and richness. Deer browsing increased diversity and richness by 24% and 22% respectively. Community composition was most greatly affected by browsing in year one corresponding to the highest rates of browsing and greatest differences in aboveground biomass. These results indicate that deer can have substantial effects on the initial establishment of prairie communities as well as resource availability from the onset of restoration.