Spatial factors of white-tailed deer herbivory assessment in the central Appalachian Mountains
Kniowski, Andrew B.
Ford, W. Mark
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Because moderate to over-abundant white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) herbivory impacts biodiversity and can alter community function, ecological benchmarks of herbivory impact are needed to assess deer impacts. We evaluated spatial patterns of deer herbivory and their relation to herbivory assessment by evaluating woody vegetation along 20 transects at each of 30 sites spread across a wide range of deer herd densities and vegetative condition throughout the biodiverse Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, USA. Surprisingly, herbivory patterns and the availability of woody forage generally were unchanged among physiographic regions and land use diversity classes. However, some relationships between browsing pattern and vegetation varied with scale. The total quantity of vegetation browsed on a given site and at the transect scale were related positively to the availability of forage, as the proportion of stems browsed decreased as stem density increased. However, this was only true when all stems were considered equally. When stem densities by species were weighted for deer preference, the proportion of stems browsed had no relationship or increased with stem density. Compared to the value from all transects sampled, on average, the mean of >= 3 transects within a site was within 0.1 of the browsing ratio and stem densities were within 0.5 stems m(-2). Our results suggest that one transect per square kilometer with a minimum of three transects may be sufficient for most browsing intensity survey requirements to assess herbivory impacts in the Appalachian region of Virginia. Still, inclusion of spatial factors to help partition variation of deer herbivory potentially may allow for improved precision and accuracy in the design of field herbivory impact assessment methods and improve their application across various landscape contexts.