Carrying capacity estimates based on digestible protein (DP) and energy (DE) are useful in comparing effects of land management practices or the ability of different vegetation communities to support herbivores. Plant secondary compounds that negatively affect forage quality would be expected to change nutritionally based estimates of carrying capacity. We evaluated the effect of plant secondary compounds on nutritionally based carrying capacity estimates of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus Zimmerman) in Tamaulipan thorn scrub of northern Mexico. Forage biomass, nutrient concentration, and tannin concentration (protein-precipitating capacity) were measured for 23 forage items during spring and summer in three replicate pastures. Nitrogen in phenolic amines was estimated for the two principal woody browse species in deer diets and was assumed to be unavailable for amino acid synthesis. Carrying capacity estimates were calculated based on three dietary concentrations of DP and DE. Nutritional carrying capacity estimates that accounted for antinutritional compounds were reduced 50 ± 6%, 28 ± 8%, and 0 ± 0% (mean ± SE) for diets of high, medium, and low DE concentration, respectively, compared to estimates from models that ignored the effects of these compounds. Accounting for effects of plant secondary compounds reduced DP-derived carrying capacity estimates 4 ± 3%, 47 ± 9%, and 9 ± 8% for diets with high, medium, and low concentrations of DP, respectively. High variation in percent reduction in carrying capacity estimates occurred because of site and seasonal variation in plant species composition and biomass, making application of a single correction factor to account for plant secondary compound effects on carrying capacity infeasible. Protein-precipitating capacity of tannins accounted for > 98% of the reductions in carrying capacity estimates based on DP. Our results clearly demonstrate the need to consider effects of tannins on ungulate carrying capacity estimates based on DP and DE. Estimates can be further refined by accounting for nonprotein nitrogen and other antinutritional compounds in all forage items.
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Vol. 64 • No. 3