The effects of timing of grazing on plant and arthropod communities in grasslands of southwest Montana
Davis, Stacy Christine
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Grassland plants have co-evolved with native ungulate grazers for millions of years, but over the last 100 years there has been a shift towards grazing by domestic livestock in North America. Many of the grazing-induced changes in plant and arthropod communities depend on how the grazing regime is implemented. Timing of grazing is one component of the grazing regime that is less well understood than grazing intensity and type of grazer, but is predicted to have important implications for plant and higher trophic level responses. The purpose of this study was to experimentally assess how timing of grazing affected plant and arthropod communities in high-elevation grasslands of southwest Montana. We designed a 2-year field experiment that manipulated cattle grazing by implementing two grazing initiation dates, one beginning in mid-June and the other in mid-July. We compared plant (biomass and height) and arthropod characteristics (density and biomass of orders) across two years that differed in cumulative precipitation. Grazing reduced total plant biomass, forb biomass, and plant height with little to no recovery regardless of timing of grazing. The density of the most dominant arthropod order, Hemiptera, was reduced in both grazing treatments. By comparing end of season plant responses to grazing, we found that total plant biomass was unaffected in the drier year while forb biomass was unaffected in the wetter year. Many end of season arthropod responses were reduced by grazing in both study years. Although both grazing treatments reduced many plant and arthropod characteristics, grazing earlier in the growing season may impact higher trophic levels that are reliant on the presence of forbs and Hemiptera earlier in the growing season. These results have important implications for meeting conservation grazing objectives and for how timing of grazing may influence food availability for grassland-associated avian species of concern, in particular, smaller passerines.