Using packrat middens to assess how grazing influences vegetation change in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Utah

Open-File Report 2006-1183

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The fossil and sub-fossil plant macrofossils and pollen grains found in packrat middens can serve as important proxies for climate and vegetation change in the arid Southwestern United States. A new application for packrat midden research is in understanding post-settlement vegetation changes caused by the grazing of domesticated animals. This work examines a series of 27 middens from Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (GLCA), spanning from 995 yr BP to the present, which detail vegetation during the periods just prior to, and following, the introduction of domesticated grazers. By comparing middens deposited before and after the start of grazing by domesticated sheep and cattle, the effect on the native plant communities through time can be determined. This analysis of change through time is augmented by measurements of change through space by contrasting contemporaneous middens from nearby similar grazed and ungrazed sites. These comparisons are only made possible by the presence of inaccessible ungrazed areas surrounded by steep cliffs. Multivariate ordinations of the plant assemblages from packrat middens demonstrated that even though all middens were selected from similar geologic substrates, soils, and vegetation type, their primary variability was site-to-site. This suggests that selecting comparable grazed versus ungrazed study treatments would be difficult, and that two similar sites several kilometers apart should not be assumed to have been the same prior to grazing without pre-grazing data. But, the changes through time on grazed areas, as well as the differences between grazed and ungrazed areas in the diversity of certain taxonomic groups, both suggest that grazing by domesticated ungulates has had a noticeable effect on the vegetation. The changes seen through time suggested that grazing lowered the number of taxa recorded and lessened the pre-existing differences within sites, homogenizing the resultant plant associations. Late Holocene pre-settlement middens, and modern middens from ungrazed areas, contained more native grasses, skunkbush sumac (Rhus trilobata), blackbrush (Coleogyne ramosissima), winterfat (Krascheninnikovia lanata), Utah serviceberry (Amelanchier utahensis), and roundleaf buffaloberry (Shepherdia rotundifolia) than modern middens from grazed areas. Pollen data supported the macrofossil data, recording decreases in pollen of the goosefoot family (Chenopodiaceae), grass family (Poaceae), and globemallow (Sphaeralcea spp.) from pre- to post-settlement.

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Using packrat middens to assess how grazing influences vegetation change in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Utah
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Open-File Report
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Southwest Biological Science Center
vi, 55 p. : ill. (some col.), maps ; 28 cm.