Date of Award:

2017

Document Type:

Dissertation

Degree Name:

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department:

Wildland Resources

Advisor/Chair:

Juan J. Villalba

Abstract

Herbivory is one major force accelerating aspen decline in North America, but it is unclear why herbivores prefer certain aspen stands over others, or over other plant species in the understory. In this dissertation, I determined the influence of nutrients and plant secondary compounds (PSC), physiological state, chemical composition, and prior experience on aspen preference by sheep in controlled pen experiments. In addition, I explored the relationship between herbivory, regeneration, recruitment, and other landscape elements for specific aspen stands within Wolf Creek Ranch in northern Utah using biomass and chemical composition of the understory and chemical defenses of juvenile aspen trees (i.e., the foodscape). Aspen intake was enhanced when lamb diets contained a high crude protein to energy ratio or when the basal diet contained a low density of energy. Intake was depressed as concentrations of PG (phenolic glycosides) increased in aspen leaves or when lambs were fed a high energy to protein ratio. The effects of nutrients on aspen intake were greater when phenolic glycosides in aspen were present at low concentrations. However, when given a choice between aspen leaves of high or low PG content, lamb preference depended more on aspen nutrient and mineral availability, or on prior diet, than on defense chemistry. On the landscape, I found that stands at low elevations with low abundance of nutrients in the understory are more likely to experience less regeneration and recruitment than those growing within nutrient-rich sites. Aspen browsing was negatively correlated with PG content in aspen stands, and elk presence (measured via fecal pellets) was negatively correlated with abundance of understory protein.

In conclusion, aspen herbivory appears to be controlled by the interplay between types and amounts of nutrients offered by the landscape and the chemical composition of aspen stands. A clear assessment of these variables on the landscape, i.e., the foodscape, will aid in the development of novel management strategies aimed at providing nutrients (e.g., through supplements, introduced forages) at strategic locations in order to reduce aspen herbivory within at-risk aspen stands.

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