Forage selection patterns of cattle in sagebrush (Artemisia L.) communities are influenced by a variety of environmental and plant-associated factors. The relative preference of cattle for interspace versus under-sagebrush canopy bunchgrasses has not been documented. Potential preferences may indirectly affect habitat for sage-grouse and other ground-nesting birds. Our objectives were to investigate grazing patterns of cattle with respect to undercanopy (shrub) and interspace tussocks, determine the influence of cattle grazing on screening cover, and relate shrub morphology to undercanopy grazing occurrence. Eighteen-day replicated trials were conducted in the summers of 2003 and 2004. Findings suggest cattle initially concentrate grazing on tussocks between shrubs, and begin foraging on tussocks beneath shrubs as interspace plants are depleted. Grazing of undercanopy grass tussocks was negligible at light-to-moderate utilization levels ( < 40% by weight). Grass tussocks under spreading, umbrella-shaped shrub canopies were less likely (P < 0.001) to be grazed than those beneath erect, narrow canopies. Horizontal screening cover decreased (P < 0.001) with pasture utilization. At the trial's end, removal of 75% of the herbaceous standing crop induced about a 5% decrease in screening cover in all strata from ground level to 1 m with no differences among strata (P = 0.531). This implied that shrubs constituted the majority of screening vegetation. Our data suggest that conservative forage use, approaching 40% by weight, will affect a majority (about 70%) of interspace tussocks and a lesser proportion (about 15%) of potential nest-screening tussocks beneath sagebrush. Probability of grazing of tussocks beneath shrubs, however, is also affected by shrub morphology. These findings will help managers design grazing programs in locales where habitat for ground nesting birds is a concern.
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