Influence of deer, cattle grazing and timber harvest on plant species diversity in a longleaf pine bluestem ecosystem
Despite a recent slowing in the negative historical trend, losses of naturally-regenerated longleaf pine forests currently continue, largely as a result of conversion to plantations of faster growing pine species. Comparing the impacts of type conversion with silvicultural approaches that maintain longleaf pine and ascertaining their interaction with the influence of other resource management practices, such as grazing, on plant species diversity are essential in discerning the effects of these activities on the long-term sustainability of these ecosystems. A flatwoods longleaf pine bluestem ecosystem, which naturally regenerated following timber harvest during the early 20th century, on the coastal plain of southern Alabama was thinned to a residual basal area of 17 m2/ha or clearcut, windrowed and planted with slash pine (Pinus elliottii) seedlings in 1972 and then fenced in 1977 to differentially exclude grazing by deer and cattle. Neither grazing by deer alone nor deer in combination with cattle significantly altered vascular plant cover or species diversity; however, substantial differences were noted between the understory plant communities in the thinned forests and clearcut areas. Woody understory vegetation steadily increased through time, with woody plant cover in clearcuts (41%) dominated by the tree seedlings of Pinus elliottii and Quercus spp. being greater than that in thinned forests (31%) which were dominated by shrubs, principally Ilex glabra. While grass cover dominated by Schizachrium scoparium and Andropogon spp. remained stable (~81%), the foliar cover of all forbs declined through time (from 42 to 18%) as woody plant cover increased. Although the overall species richness and diversity declined and evenness increased through time, understory species richness and diversity were consistently higher in thinned forests than in artificially-regenerated clearcuts. Despite a modest short-term decline in this differential, indicating a partial recovery of the clearcut areas over time, the disparity in understory plant diversity between thinned forests and clearcuts persisted for at least a decade. Whether grazing includes domestic cattle or is limited to native ungulates, such as white-tailed deer, we recommend that longleaf pine forests not be clearcut and replaced by plantations of other pines, if the ecological diversity is to be conserved, high quality habitat is to be maintained and longleaf pine ecosystems are to be sustained.
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