An increase in ungulate population size potentially exposes aspen suckers, saplings, and trees to increased use. This study examined how stem height and girth influenced the selection of stems by ungulates for browsing, rubbing, and gnawing, and reconstructed the history of ungulate use for the study area. Transects were run through each of three aspen clones growing in southwestern Montana to determine height, circumference, and the surface area from which bark was totally and partially removed by rubbing and gnawing. Stems 20-250 cm tall were browsed. Stems 2-13 cm diameter were preferentially selected for rubbing and gnawing. The area of totally removed bark on dead saplings was twice the area of removed bark on live stems of similar diameter, suggesting that bark removal played a major role in the death of some stems. Based on an analysis of stem height and age, ungulate browsing was inferred to have increased from a light-to-moderate level to an intense level in 1991. The depth of scars was used to date scarring events. An increase in rubbing and gnawing was determined to have occurred about 1985. We concluded that elk were primarily responsible for the observed impacts. The combined effect of rubbing, gnawing, and browsing affects a broader span of ages compared to the effect of browsing alone. If prescribed fire is used to rejuvenate aspen stands, the resulting young stems should be protected from heavy browsing, rubbing and gnawing until they reach about 13 cm diameter and have grown out of the browse zone.
Additional publication details
Aspen height, stem-girth and survivorship in an area of high ungulate use