Elk Effects on Landscape, Successional, and Community Processes in Eastern Kentucky

  • Maehr, David (PI)

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The choices of elk regarding ruminating and foraging areas, as well as the plant species they eat can have profound effects on the distribution, structure, and composition of plant and animal communities (Janzen 1976, Jones 1981, McNaughton 1984, Frank and McNaughton 1992, 1993, Augustine and McNaughton 1998). While the its contribution to ecological processes in eastern Kentucky has not been quantified, anecdotal evidence suggests that elk have, or soon will, alter the eastern Kentucky landscape. For example, elk routinely select forested ridge-tops as ruminating sites. These areas are characterized by a sparse or absent litter layer, large deposits of dung, and urine-saturated soils. Elk trails leading to and from these sites were often greater than a 1- meter in width and composed of loose mineral soil and organic matter. Preliminary analyses demonstrate that nitrogen cycling has been dramatically altered relative to undisturbed sites (see attached figure). Traditional ruminating and resting sites may experience altered plant species composition and structure (Hobbs 1996, Augustine and McNaughton 1998). Will ridge-top communities used repeatedly by elk revert to those characteristic of the pre-Columbian landscape? Will they provide substrates for the colonization of native species? Regardless, the resulting plant communities will be influenced by several elk-induced factors including: 1) soil compaction; 2) soil loss and erosion; 3) changes in micro-climate; and 4) plant species responses to the above factors, as well as browsing and nutrient subsides. We predict that the colonizing plant communitites in high elk-use areas will exhibit increased heterogeneity, and that locak species distributions will change.
Effective start/end date5/9/035/9/05


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