Great Basin Naturalist


The effects of elk (Cervus elaphus), pronghorn (Antilocapra americana), and mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) browsing on shrubs in big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) communities were monitored over a 31-year period in Yellowstone National Park. Ungulates were restricting Wyoming big sagebrush (spp. wyomingensis) heights, size, and recruitment on the lower-elevation stratum only, while no such suppression was observed on the high-elevation stratum. Parallel increases in mountain big sagebrush (spp. vaseyana) densities and cover occurred over the study period on both browsed and unbrowsed sites at the higher-elevation stratum, although big sagebrush, green rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus viscidiflorus), and horsebrush (Tetradymia canescens) were slightly taller and crown sizes were slightly larger on unbrowsed than browsed sites. Wyoming big sagebrush utilization (percent leader use) was eight times higher ( = 87 ± 7.2% by pronghorns, mule deer, and elk) on the low-elevation winter ranges stratum (the Boundary Line Area [BLA] portion of the winter range), while mostly mountain big sagebrush with leader use averaged only 11 ± 4.1% (nearly all by elk) on the high-elevation range stratum. In addition, annual aboveground biomass production of big sagebrush did not differ between browsed and unbrowsed study sites on the high-elevation stratum of the winter range. Population turnover was higher on browsed plots versus unbrowsed plots. No difference was observed in percent dieback of big sagebrush adult plants between browsed and unbrowsed plots at the higher stratum. Browsing did not influence the number of leaves or seedstalks per plant (P > .05), but leaves averaged 45% longer and seedstalks 42% longer on browsed big sagebrush. Ungulate browsing, however, apparently suppressed production, germination, and survival of Wyoming big sagebrush on the low-elevation stratum. Numbers of Wyoming big sagebrush declined 43% and cover declined 29%, 1957–1990, on browsed sites on the BLA. Annual biomass production on browsed sites at the low-elevation stratum was only 6–35% that of unbrowsed sites, and big sagebrush recruitment was less on browsed sites. Percent leader use of big sagebrush did not differ between the period of ungulate reductions, 1962–1969, and the 1980s on the lower stratum ( = 87% leader use), but utilization was less on higher portions of the winter range during the period of elk reductions ( = 2%) than during the 1980s following cessation of elk controls ( = 11%).