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Ungulate herbivory on alpine willow in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Colorado

January 1, 2011

In many areas of the Rocky Mountains, elk (Cervus elaphus) migrate from low-elevation mountain valleys during spring to high-elevation subalpine and alpine areas for the summer. Research has focused on the impacts of elk herbivory on winter-range plant communities, particularly on woody species such as willow and aspen; however, little information is available on the effects of elk herbivory on alpine willows. In the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of south central Colorado, select alpine areas appear to receive high levels of summer elk herbivory, while other areas are nearly unbrowsed. In 2005 and 2008, we measured willow height, cover, and utilization on sites that appeared to be used heavily by elk, as well as on sites that appeared to be used lightly, to determine differences between these communities over time. We found less willow cover and shorter willows at sites that received higher levels of browsing compared to those that had lower levels of browsing. Human recreational use was greater at lightly browsed sites than at highly browsed sites. From 2005 to 2008, willow utilization declined, and willow cover and height increased at sites with heavy browsing, likely owing to ownership change of adjacent valley land which led to (1) removal of grazing competition from, cattle at valley locations and (2) increased human use in alpine areas, which displaced elk. We discuss the implications of increased human use and climate change on elk use of these alpine habitats.

Publication Year 2011
Title Ungulate herbivory on alpine willow in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Colorado
DOI 10.3398/064.071.0112
Authors Linda Zeigenfuss, Kathryn A. Schoenecker, L.K.V. Amburg
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Western North American Naturalist
Index ID 70034966
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse