Elk (Cervus canadensis) can significantly alter plant community composition and reduce plant biodiversity, mass, seedling numbers and sapling growth. Yet, few studies have examined the interactions of reintroduced elk with woody plant communities in eastern North America. To test the hypothesis that elk herbivory would reduce woody plant diversity and recruitment and also change woody plant community composition when compared to deer, we evaluated herbivory effects of a captive elk herd and a free-roaming white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) population in Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in western Kentucky. Elk and deer herbivory did not differ in their effects upon overall woody plant diversity. However, elk browsing significantly altered woody plant community composition (F1,15 = 2.27, P = 0.005), reduced stem heights of Quercus and Cornus genera (Ps < 0.036) and reduced frequencies of Quercus, Nyssa, and Sassafras (Ps < 0.045) when compared to deer. Our results suggest elk herbivory pressure on Quercus, as well as other tree and shrub species, will affect eastern forest regeneration and thus managing the growth and distribution of reintroduced elk populations will be important for the viability of eastern and midwestern deciduous forests within restoration zones.
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