Bison Influences on Composition and Diversity of Riparian Plant Communities in Yellowstone National Park
Ecological Society of America
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Riparian zones are among the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the Intermountain West, USA, and provide valuable ecosystem services, including high rates of biotic productivity, nutrient processing, and carbon storage. Thus, their sustainability is a high priority for land managers. Large ungulates affect composition and structure of riparian/stream ecosystems through herbivory and physical effects, via trailing and trampling. Bison (Bison bison) in Yellowstone National Park (YNP) have been characterized as "ecosystem engineers" because of their demonstrated effects on phenology, aboveground productivity of grasses, and woody vegetation structure. Bison have greatly increased in numbers during the last two decades and spend large periods of time in the broad open floodplains of the Northern Range of the Park, where they are hypothesized to have multiple effects on plant species composition and diversity. We sampled indicators of bison use as well as riparian vegetation composition, diversity, and structure along eight headwater streams within YNP's Northern Range. Total fecal density ranged from 333 to 1833 fecal chips and/or piles/ha, stubble heights ranged from 7 to 49 cm, and streambank disturbance ranged from 9% to 62%. High levels of bison use were positively correlated with exotic species dominance and negatively correlated with species richness, native species diversity, willow (Salix spp.) cover, and wetland species dominance. At three sites, the intensity of bison use exceeded recommended utilization thresholds to avoid degradation of streams and riparian zones on public lands. The influences of large herbivores, principally bison, on vegetation composition and structure suggest the cumulative effects of the current densities on the Northern Range are contributing to biotic impoverishment, representing the loss of ecosystem services that are provided by native riparian plant communities. In addition, contemporary levels of bison use may be exacerbating climate change effects as observed through ungulate-related shifts in composition toward plant assemblages adapted to warmer and drier conditions. However, the resilience of native riparian vegetation suggests that sites currently heavily utilized by bison would have the potential for recovery with a reduction in pressure by this herbivore.
Kauffman, J. B., D. L. Cummings, C. Kauffman, R. L. Beschta, J. Brooks, K. MacNeill, and W. J. Ripple. 2023. Bison influences on composition and diversity of riparian plant communities in Yellowstone National Park. Ecosphere 14:e4406.
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