Managed livestock grazing is compatible with the maintenance of plant diversity in semidesert grasslands

Fensham, R. J., Silcock, J. L., & Firn, Jennifer (2014) Managed livestock grazing is compatible with the maintenance of plant diversity in semidesert grasslands. Ecological Applications, 24(3), pp. 503-517.

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Abstract

Even when no baseline data are available, the impacts of 150 years of livestock grazing on natural grasslands can be assessed using a combined approach of grazing manipulation and regional-scale assessment of the flora. Here, we demonstrate the efficacy of this method across 18 sites in the semidesert Mitchell grasslands of northeastern Australia. Fifteen-year-old exclosures (ungrazed and macropod grazed) revealed that the dominant perennial grasses in the genus Astrebla do not respond negatively to grazing disturbance typical of commercial pastoralism. Neutral, positive, intermediate, and negative responses to grazing disturbance were recorded amongst plant species with no single life-form group associated with any response type. Only one exotic species, Cenchrus ciliaris, was recorded at low frequency. The strongest negative response was from a native annual grass, Chionachne hubbardiana, an example of a species that is highly sensitive to grazing disturbance. Herbarium records revealed only scant evidence that species with a negative response to grazing have declined through the period of commercial pastoralism. A regional analysis identified 14 from a total of 433 plant species in the regional flora that may be rare and potentially threatened by grazing disturbance. However, a targeted survey precluded grazing as a cause of decline for seven of these based on low palatability and positive responses to grazing and other disturbance. Our findings suggest that livestock grazing of semidesert grasslands with a short evolutionary history of ungulate grazing has altered plant composition, but has not caused declines in the dominant perennial grasses or in species richness as predicted by the preceding literature. The biggest impact of commercial pastoralism is the spread of woody leguminous trees that can transform grassland to thorny shrubland. The conservation of plant biodiversity is largely compatible with commercial pastoralism provided these woody weeds are controlled, but reserves strategically positioned within water remote areas are necessary to protect grazing-sensitive species. This study demonstrates that a combination of experimental studies and regional surveys can be used to understand anthropogenic impacts on natural ecosystems where reference habitat is not available.

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ID Code: 73038
Item Type: Journal Article
Refereed: Yes
Keywords: Exclosures, Grassland, Conservation, Grazing disturbance, Mitchell grassland, Resilience, Semidesert grassland, Species diversity
DOI: 10.1890/13-0492.1
ISSN: 1051-0761
Divisions: Current > Schools > School of Earth, Environmental & Biological Sciences
Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Science & Engineering Faculty
Copyright Owner: Copyright 2014 by the Ecological Society of America
Deposited On: 24 Jun 2014 23:36
Last Modified: 26 Jun 2014 01:37

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