Great Basin Naturalist


Mid- to late-Holocene vegetation change from a remote high-desert site was reconstructed using plant macrofossils and pollen from 9 packrat middens ranging from 0 to 5400 yr in age. Presettlement middens consistently contained abundant macrofossils of plant species palatable to large herbivores that are now absent or reduced, such as winterfat (Ceratoides lanata) and ricegrass (Stipa hymenoides). Macrofossils and pollen of pinyon pine (Pinus edulis), sagebrush (Artemisia spp.), and roundleaf buffaloberry (Shepherdia rotundifolia) were recently reduced to their lowest levels for the 5400-yr record. Conversely, species typical of overgrazed range, such as snakeweed (Gutierrezia sarothrae), viscid rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus visidiflorus), and Russian thistle (Salsola sp.), were not recorded prior to the historic introduction of grazing animals. Pollens of Utah juniper (Juniperus osteosperma) also increased during the last 200 yr. These records demonstrate that the most severe vegetation changes of the last 5400 yr occurred during the past 200 yr. The nature and timing of these changes suggest that they were primarily caused by the 19th-century open-land sheep and cattle ranching. The reduction of pinyon and sagebrush concurrent with other grazing impacts suggests that effects of cattle grazing at modern stocking levels may be a poor analog for the effects of intense sheep grazing during drought.