We studied the effects of grazing by Black Brant (Branta bernicla nigricans) geese (hereafter Brant) on plant community zonation and gosling growth between 1987 and 2000 at a nesting colony in southwestern Alaska. The preferred forage of Brant, Carex subspathacea, is only found as a grazing lawn. An alternate forage species, C. ramenskii, exists primarily as meadow but also forms grazing lawns when heavily grazed. We mowed plots of ungrazed C. ramenskii meadows to create swards that Brant could select and maintain as grazing lawns. Fecal counts were higher on mowed plots than on control plots in the year after plots were mowed. Both nutritional quality and aboveground biomass of C. ramenskii in mowed plots were similar to that of C. subspathacea grazing lawns. The areal extent of grazing lawns depends in part on the population size of Brant. High Brant populations can increase the areal extent of grazing lawns, which favors the growth of goslings. Grazing lawns increased from 3% to 8% of surface area as the areal extent of C. ramenskii meadows declined between 1991 and 1999. Gosling mass was lower early in this time period due to density dependent effects. As the goose population stabilized, and area of grazing lawns increased, gosling mass increased between 1993 and 1999. Because larger goslings have increased survival, higher probability of breeding, and higher fecundity, herbivore-mediated changes in the distribution grazing lawn extent may result in a numerical increase of the population within the next two decades.
Additional publication details
Feedback dynamics of grazing lawns: Coupling vegetation change with animal growth