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Climate alters response of an endemic island plant to removal of invasive herbivores

January 1, 2009

Islands experience higher rates of species extinction than mainland ecosystems, with biological invasions among the leading causes; they also serve as important model systems for testing ideas in basic and applied ecology. Invasive removal programs on islands are conservation efforts that can also be viewed as powerful manipulative experiments, but few data are available to evaluate their effects. We collected demographic and herbivore damage data for Castilleja mollis Pennell, an endangered plant endemic to Santa Rosa Island, California, over a 12-year period before, during, and after the implementation of control for introduced cattle, deer, and elk. We used these long-term data to explore mechanisms underlying herbivore effects, assess the results of herbivore reduction at the scales of both individual plants and populations, and determine how temporal variability in herbivory and plant demography influenced responses to herbivore removals. For individual plants, herbivore effects mediated by disturbance were greater than those of grazing. Deer and elk scraping of the ground substantially increased plant mortality and dormancy and reduced flowering and growth. Stem damage from browsing did not affect survivorship but significantly reduced plant growth and flower production. Herbivore control successfully lowered damage rates, which declined steeply between 1997 and 2000 and have remained relatively low. Castilleja mollis abundances rose sharply after 1997, suggesting a positive effect of herbivore control, but then began to decline steadily again after 2003. The recent decline appears to be driven by higher mean growing season temperatures; interestingly, not only reductions in scraping damage but a period of cooler conditions were significant in explaining increases in C. mollis populations between 1997 and 2002. Our results demonstrate strong effects of introduced herbivores on both plant demography and population dynamics and show that climate-driven variation may counteract and mask positive responses to herbivore removal. Regional mean temperatures already have risen significantly over the last 50 years, suggesting that climate change could increasingly swamp the effects of management targeted at other environmental problems. Similar interactions between climate and invasive species will play an even greater role in future management, with long-term data sets like this critical to quantifying such effects. ?? 2009 by the Ecological Society of America.