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Conserv Biol. 2007 Apr;21(2):515-26.

Influence of a large herbivore reintroduction on plant invasions and community composition in a California grassland.

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Department of Biology, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, CA 94928, USA.


Despite many successful reintroductions of large mammalian herbivores throughout the world, remarkably little attention has focused on how these actions affect native and exotic vegetation at reintroduction sites. One such herbivore is tule elk (Cervus elaphus nannodes), which was on the brink of extinction in the mid 1800s, but now has numerous stable populations due to intensive reintroduction efforts. Here, we summarize results from a 5-year exclosure experiment that explored the effects of tule elk on a coastal grassland in northern California. Elk significantly altered the species composition of this community; the response of annual species (dominated heavily by exotic taxa) was dramatically different from perennial species. Elk herbivory increased the abundance and aboveground biomass of native and exotic annuals, whereas it either had no effect on or caused significant decreases in perennials. Elk also decreased the cover of native shrubs, suggesting that these herbivores play an important role in maintaining open grasslands. In addition, elk significantly reduced the abundance and biomass of a highly invasive exotic grass, Holcus lanatus, which is a major problem in mesic perennial grasslands. Our results demonstrate that the successful reintroduction of a charismatic and long-extirpated mammal had extremely complex effects on the plant community, giving rise to both desirable and undesirable outcomes from a management perspective. We suspect that these kinds of opposing effects are not unique to tule elk and that land managers will frequently encounter them when dealing with reintroduced mammals.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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