Vegetation and Small Mammal Responses to Western Juniper (Juniperus occidentalis) Control in Eastern Oregon Public Deposited

http://ir.library.oregonstate.edu/concern/graduate_thesis_or_dissertations/8049g8531

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  • Shrub-steppe ecosystems of western North America provide habitat for many wildlife species, are important components of public and private rangelands, and offer recreational opportunities for millions of people. They are some of the most vulnerable ecosystems in the United States and have been altered by human activities such as livestock grazing, active fire suppression, conversion to agriculture, and urbanization of the west. Since the late 1800s woody encroachment of piñon-juniper species has also contributed to the loss of shrub-steppe habitat. Presently, land managers remove woody tree species in order to recover shrub-steppe although it is unclear how responses to these management activities differ due to site-specific conditions and existing woodland development. I studied post juniper-thinning responses in eastern Oregon at a wildlife area important as winter range for mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus). I investigated vegetative responses to western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis) thinning across a woodland development gradient and tested for interactive effects of juniper cutting and cattle exclusion. In addition, I explored plant and small mammal successional dynamics after juniper thinning and examined plant community responses within microhabitats created by the felled trees. I compared vegetative responses to juniper thinning as well as cattle exclusion among sites where juniper were subordinate (Phase I), co-dominant (Phase II), and dominant to shrubs and grasses (Phase III, sensu Miller et al. 2005). At the Phase I site, thinning did not increase herbaceous biomass while thinned plots at the Phase II site had 2.71 times more median herbaceous biomass (99.17% CI: 1.37 to 5.37 times more biomass) than unthinned plots. Conversely, herbaceous biomass at the Phase III juniper woodland site was 0.36 times lower in thinned plots when compared to unthinned plots (99.17% CI: 0.17 to 0.78 times less biomass). Unfortunately, many of the responses were driven by exotic species release. Where juniper were subordinate (Phase I), mean percent cover by exotic grass increased by 24.58 percentage points in thinned plots as compared to unthinned plots (98.30% CI: 0.27 to 48.90 percentage points higher). Thinning at the Phase II site increased mean exotic grass cover by an estimated 28.47 percentage points as compared to mean exotic cover in the same plots before treatment (98.30% CI: 4.15 to 52.79 percentage points higher cover). Median native bunchgrass cover at this site was 5.06 times greater after juniper treatment (99.7% CI: 1.78 to 14.35 times higher percent cover). I found few main or interactive effects of cattle exclosure after one year of treatment. Responses to grazing exclosure may take longer to develop. These results indicate that sites within the wildlife area respond differently to juniper management and that exotic grass control will be key to successful shrub-steppe recovery. In addition, I used a time-since-juniper thinning chronoseries consisting of plots cut in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2012, and an adjacent uncut control to explore how shrub-steppe flora and fauna are responding to juniper treatment through time. Shrub cover and seedling density were low in each plot. I recorded the highest seedling abundance (mean of 0.25 seedlings) in the uncut control plot. Median grass cover in the uncut control was 9.50% while in the most recently treated plot (2012) it was 26.75%. Small mammal relative abundance and diversity was low across all time-since-treatment plots though highest in the plot with the greatest time-since-treatment. Deer mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus) was the most abundant species in all plots and accounted for 70-95% of all unique captures. Least chipmunk (Tamias minimus) were present in the plot with greatest time-since-treatment indicating the potential recovery of key native shrubs since these small mammals perform an important seed dispersal role. I also investigated how potential microhabitats created by the felled juniper might support different plant communities. I assessed plant responses within zones created by 1) the felled tree (canopy zone), 2) the original duff zone, and 3) the between - tree interspace zone. The three zones had different plant community compositions as analyzed multivariately with non-metric multidimensional scaling (NMS). Canopy and duff zones were forb - dominated and had less exotic grass invasion while interspace zones were heavily invested with medusahead (Taeniatherum caput-medusae) and ventenata (Ventenata dubia). Exotic herbaceous productivity was lowest under the standing trees of the control plot and high in the interspace of all plots with juniper thinning. In the 2012 cut plot, grass cover was 27.90 percentage points less in the canopy zone compared to the interspace zone (98.75% CI: 17.64 to 38.16 percentage points less grass cover). In the uncut control, median native biomass was 2.08 times greater under the standing trees compared to the interspace (96.25% CI: 1.09 to 3.97 times more biomass). Results from the time-since-treatment chronoseries indicated that exotic grass dominance might be limiting shrub-steppe recovery. Active restoration of shrubs and native grasses may be necessary to address the dominance of exotic grass after juniper thinning. Positive signs of habitat recovery included small mammal responses though I was unable to calculate population estimates due to plot size.
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