Why should a grazer browse? Livestock impact on winter resource use by bharal Pseudois nayaur
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- Suryawanshi, K.R., Bhatnagar, Y.V. & Mishra, C. Oecologia (2010) 162: 453. doi:10.1007/s00442-009-1467-x
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Many mammalian herbivores show a temporal diet variation between graminoid-dominated and browse-dominated diets. We determined the causes of such a diet shift and its implications for conservation of a medium-sized ungulate—the bharal Pseudois nayaur. Past studies show that the bharal diet is dominated by graminoids (>80%) during summer, but the contribution of graminoids declines to about 50% in winter. We tested the predictions generated by two alternative hypotheses explaining the decline: low graminoid availability during winter causes bharal to include browse in their diet; bharal include browse, with relatively higher nutritional quality, in their diet to compensate for the poor quality of graminoids during winter. We measured winter graminoid availability in areas with no livestock grazing, areas with relatively moderate livestock grazing, and those with intense livestock grazing pressures. The chemical composition of plants contributing to the bharal diet was analysed. The bharal diet was quantified through signs of feeding on vegetation at feeding locations. Population structures of bharal populations were recorded using a total count method. Graminoid availability was highest in areas without livestock grazing, followed by areas with moderate and intense livestock grazing. The bharal diet was dominated by graminoids (73%) in areas with highest graminoid availability. Graminoid contribution to the bharal diet declined monotonically (50, 36%) with a decline in graminoid availability. Bharal young to female ratio was 3 times higher in areas with high graminoid availability than areas with low graminoid availability. The composition of the bharal winter diet was governed predominantly by the availability of graminoids in the rangelands. Our results suggest that bharal include more browse in their diet during winter due to competition from livestock for graminoids. Since livestock grazing reduces graminoid availability, creation of livestock-free areas is necessary for the conservation of grazing species such as the bharal and its predators including the endangered snow leopard in the Trans-Himalaya.