Although management and conservation strategies continue to move toward broader spatial scales and consideration of many taxonomic groups simultaneously, researchers have struggled to characterize responses to disturbance at these scales. Most studies of disturbance by feral grazers investigate effects on only one or two ecosystem elements across small spatial scales, limiting their applicability to ecosystem-level management. To address this inadequacy, in 1997 and 1998 we examined disturbance created by feral horses (Equus caballus) in nine mountain ranges of the western Great Basin, USA, using plants, small mammals, ants, and soil compaction as indicators. Nine horse-occupied and 10 horse-removed sites were stratified into high- and low-elevation groups, and all sites at each elevation had similar vegetation type, aspect, slope gradient, and recent (???15-yr) fire and livestock-grazing histories. Using reciprocal averaging and TWINSPAN analyses, we compared relationships among sites using five data sets: abiotic variables, percent cover by plant species, an index of abundance by plant species, 10 disturbance-sensitive response variables, and grass and shrub species considered "key" indicators by land managers. Although reciprocal averaging and TWINSPAN analyses of percent cover, abiotic variables, and key species suggested relationships between sites influenced largely by biogeography (i.e., mountain range), disturbance-sensitive variables clearly segregated horse-occupied and horse-removed sites. These analyses suggest that the influence of feral horses on many Great Basin ecosystem attributes is not being detected by monitoring only palatable plant species. We recommend development of an expanded monitoring strategy based not only on established vegetation measurements investigating forage consumption, but also including disturbance-sensitive variables (e.g., soil surface hardness, abundance of ant mounds) that more completely reflect the suite of effects that a large-bodied grazer may impose on mountain ecosystems, independent of vegetation differences. By providing a broader-based mechanism for detection of adverse effects, this strategy would provide management agencies with defensible data in a sociopolitical arena that has been embroiled in conflict for several decades.
Additional publication details
Characterizing grazing disturbance in semiarid ecosystems across broad scales, using diverse indices