Ungulate browsing influences the structure and composition of woody plant communities, including species composition and biomass production as well as age distribution, recruitment, and mortality. We evaluated effects of elk and bison herbivory on narrowleaf cottonwood (Populus angustifolia) communities in a semiarid ecosystem in southern Colorado. Cottonwoods in this ecosystem have been aged at ≥300 years old and are among the oldest cottonwood trees in North America. We compared browsing intensity and structural and productivity responses of cottonwood to ungulate herbivory. We compared responses in sites with elk and bison, sites with elk but no bison, and sites where both ungulates were excluded. We found that the majority of browsing on cottonwood occurred during summer in this high desert ecosystem. Areas with both elk and bison had higher browse utilization than areas with only elk, but diet data indicated that elk consumed a much greater proportion of cottonwood than bison. Overall, browse utilization observed in this study was low to moderate compared to other studies, and our results may not be representative of sites experiencing intense year-round herbivory. Removal of all ungulate herbivory led to taller and denser cottonwood suckers; however, other environmental factors, in addition to herbivory, still strongly limit cottonwood growth and recruitment in this ecosystem.
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Vol. 81 • No. 1