Black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) have high dietary overlap with livestock, which can cause forage-centric conflicts between agriculture and conservation. Research suggests prairie dogs can enhance forage quality, but trade-offs between quality and quantity throughout the growing season remain unclear, as well as the degree to which increased forage quality is caused by altered species composition versus altered plant physiology. To assess the effects of prairie dog herbivory on forage in a northern mixed-grass prairie, we collected samples on prairie dog colonies and at sites without prairie dogs during June, July, and August 2016 - 2017 for forage quality, and August 2015 - 2017 for herbaceous biomass. To isolate mechanisms affecting forage quality, we collected both composite samples of all herbaceous species and samples of western wheatgrass (Pascopyrum smithii [Rydb.] Á. Löve). Across years and plant sample types, crude protein, phosphorus, and fat were 12-44% greater and neutral detergent fiber was 6-10% lower on prairie dog colonies than at sites without prairie dogs. The effects of prairie dogs on forage quality persisted throughout the season for western wheatgrass samples (all treatment*time p-values ≥⃒ 0.4). Across years, aboveground herbaceous biomass did not differ significantly between prairie dog colonies and sites without prairie dogs (on-colony: 933 ± 156 kg/ha, off-colony: 982 ± 117 kg/ha). The effects of prairie dogs on herbaceous biomass were significantly influenced by spring precipitation. In years with dry springs, herbaceous biomass was lower on colonies than sites without prairie dogs and this pattern was reversed in years with wet springs. Our results demonstrate season-long enhanced forage quality on prairie dog colonies, indicating that multiple mechanisms are shaping forage quality in this system, including altered species composition, phenological growth stage, and soil condition. Across years, enhanced forage quality may help to offset reductions in forage quantity for agricultural producers.
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