Responses of Shrub Midstory and Herbaceous Layers to Managed Grazing and Fire in a North American Savanna (Oak Woodland) and Prairie Landscape

Worldwide, savanna remnants are losing acreage due to species replacement with shade-tolerant midstory forest species as a response to decades of fire suppression. Because canopy closes grasses and other easily ignitable fuels decline, therefore, fire, when reintroduced after years of absence, is not always effective at restoring the open structure original to these communities. Our study sought to determine if managed grazing is an alternative tool for reducing shrub densities and restoring savanna structure without the impacts on soils and native vegetation observed with unmanaged grazing. We compared effects of fire and  managed grazing on shrub and herb composition within degraded oak savanna and tallgrass prairie of the U.S. Upper Midwest using a randomized complete block design. The vegetation response to treatments differed by species and by vegetation type. Total shrub stem densities declined 44% in grazed and 68% in burned paddocks within savanna and by 33% for both treatments within prairie. Within savanna, cattle  reduced stem densities of Rubus spp. 97%, whereas fire reduced Ribes missouriense stems 96%. Both fire and grazing were effective at reducing stem numbers for several other shrub species but not to the same degree. Native forbs were suppressed in grazed savanna paddocks, as were native grasses in grazed prairie paddocks along with a minor increase of exotic forbs. We did not observe changes in soil bulk density. We conclude that managed grazing can serve as a valuable supplement but not as a replacement to fire for  controlling shrubs in these systems.

Authors: John A. Harrington and Emily Kathol