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Impacts of simulated livestock grazing on Utah prairie dogs (Cynomys parvidens) in a low productivity ecosystem

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Allometric foraging theory suggests that herbivores of greatly differing size should co-exist through niche segregation, but a few studies of large–small herbivore foraging relationships have reported competitive interactions. This study addresses the potential roles of habitat productivity and large herbivore grazing intensities on large–small herbivore foraging interactions. We examined effects of different intensity simulated grazing treatments on forage abundance and quality for Utah prairie dogs (Cynomys parvidens) in a low productivity ecosystem, and consequent effects on prairie dog individual growth rates, foraging preferences, and activity budgets. We hypothesized that simulated grazing would have predominantly facilitative impacts on Utah prairie dogs, as was found for black-tailed prairie dogs in higher productivity ecosystems. To test this hypothesis, we measured the effects of simulated grazing on forage nitrogen, digestibility, and biomass. Simulated grazing increased average forage nitrogen and digestibility while decreasing forage biomass. These effects were associated with reduced individual growth rates, increased juvenile foraging time, and reduced juvenile vigilance. Results suggest that the negative effects of reduced vegetation biomass greatly outweighed positive treatment effects in this study. However, prairie dogs in the moderate intensity defoliation treatment showed some preference for “grazed” plots over “ungrazed” plots, and this preference increased with time. Our study lends support to the idea that habitat productivity and herbivore densities may mediate shifts between facilitative and competitive interactions between different-sized herbivores.

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We would like to thank Cedar City Bureau of Land Management, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, and Utah State University Ecology Center for providing logistical and funding support for this study. The experiments conducted for this research comply with the current laws of the United States.

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Correspondence to Ellen Cheng.

Additional information

Communicated by Craig Osenberg

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Cheng, E., Ritchie, M.E. Impacts of simulated livestock grazing on Utah prairie dogs (Cynomys parvidens) in a low productivity ecosystem. Oecologia 147, 546–555 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-005-0286-y

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  • Competition
  • Facilitation
  • Herbivory
  • Interspecific interactions