Ungulate control of grassland production: Grazing intensity and ungulate species composition in Yellowstone Park

Douglas A. Frank, Rick L. Wallen, P. J. White

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Scopus citations


Knowledge of the envelope of grazing conditions within which grassland plant and soil processes are sustainable is important for the ecologically sound management of grazed grassland. Here we examined how a recent shift from elk to bison dominance of the northern ungulate community in Yellowstone National Park (YNP), and an associated increase in the duration that grassland was grazed, affected grazing intensity and aboveground net primary production (ANPP). Mean grazing intensity (GI, percentage ANPP removed) and stimulation (grazed ANPP minus ungrazed [exclosed] ANPP) were compared among three studies, two when elk (1988-1989, 1999-2001) and one when bison (2012-2014) dominated the northern YNP ungulate community. We also manipulated GI with small exclosures established for different lengths of time after the start of the growing season to directly determine the effect of the combination of grazing duration (GD) and GI on stimulation at a dry grassland and a mesic grassland. GI was greater under a bison-dominant grazing regime (49%) compared with that measured during the two earlier periods when elk were the dominant ungulate species (31%, 13%). Plotting stimulation on GI for sites sampled across all three studies revealed a unimodal relationship, with peak stimulation of 34% occurring at a GI of 40%. Manipulating GI indicated that the greater GI and longer GD of grazing under a bisondominant regime reduced stimulation at a mesic grassland and negated it completely at a dry grassland. These findings revealed that a shift in the grazing ungulate community composition and an associated change in the migratory behavior of the dominant species impacted YNP grassland processes. Results also showed that grassland ANPP was resilient to the relatively high rates of prolonged grazing by the bison-dominant community and did not reduce ANPP below paired, ungrazed conditions. However, YNP grassland should be continued to be monitored if such high rates of herbivory continue.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere01603
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 1 2016


  • Bison
  • Elk
  • Grassland
  • Herbivory
  • Ungulate
  • Yellowstone National Park

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


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