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Ecological Applications






Ecological Society of America

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Rainfall and herbivory are fundamental drivers of grassland plant dynamics, yet few studies have examined long‐term interactions between these factors in an experimental setting. Understanding such interactions is important, as rainfall is becoming increasingly erratic and native wild herbivores are being replaced by livestock. Livestock grazing and episodic low rainfall are thought to interact, leading to greater community change than either factor alone. We examined patterns of change and stability in herbaceous community composition through four dry periods, or droughts, over 15 years of the Kenya Long‐term Exclosure Experiment (KLEE), which consists of six different combinations of cattle, native wild herbivores (e.g., zebras, gazelles), and mega‐herbivores (giraffes, elephants). We used principal response curves to analyze the trajectory of change in each herbivore treatment relative to a common initial community and asked how droughts contributed to community change in these treatments. We examined three measures of stability (resistance, variability, and turnover) that correspond to different temporal scales and found that each had a different response to grazing. Treatments that included both cattle and wild herbivores had higher resistance (less net change over 15 years) but were more variable on shorter time scales; in contrast, the more lightly grazed treatments (no herbivores or wild herbivores only) showed lower resistance due to the accumulation of consistent, linear, short‐term change. Community change was greatest during and immediately after droughts in all herbivore treatments. But, while drought contributed to directional change in the less grazed treatments, it contributed to both higher variability and resistance in the more heavily grazed treatments. Much of the community change in lightly grazed treatments (especially after droughts) was due to substantial increases in cover of the palatable grass Brachiaria lachnantha. These results illustrate how herbivory and drought can act together to cause change in grassland communities at the moderate to low end of a grazing intensity continuum. Livestock grazing at a moderate intensity in a system with a long evolutionary history of grazing contributed to long‐term stability. This runs counter to often‐held assumptions that livestock grazing leads to directional, destabilizing shifts in grassland systems.