Foothills rough fescue (Festuca campestris) grasslands provide important foraging habitat for wildlife and livestock in the northwestern United States and southwestern Canada. Foothills rough fescue is sensitive to grazing during late spring—early summer but is believed to be more tolerant of grazing during winter—early spring. We evaluated vegetation and soil impacts from long-term winter—early spring grazing at 2 intensities (HG = heavy grazing, LG = light grazing). We studied a foothills rough fescue grassland in west central Montana, USA, that had been grazed almost exclusively by Rocky Mountain elk (Cervus elaphus nelsoni) during winter—early spring for 58 years. Foothills rough fescue tolerated LG but not HG, whereas bluebunch wheatgrass (Pseudoroegneria spicata) and Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis) did not tolerate either LG or HG. Decreased productivity of foothills rough fescue in HG was accompanied by decreased herbaceous ground cover and increased abundance of the invasive dense clubmoss (Selaginella densa). Soil nutrient status (OM, C, N, C:N ratio) did not differ between HG and LG; however, soil bulk density was 18% greater in HG, and the Ah horizon was 20% thinner in HG. Overall, our results indicate that long-term elk grazing during winter—early spring degraded this terrestrial ecosystem, and we conclude that periodic rest from ungulate grazing during winter—early spring is necessary to sustain foothills rough fescue grasslands.
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