Long-term grazing impacts on vegetation diversity, composition, and exotic species presence across an aridity gradient in northern temperate grasslands.
Little is known about the specific role of exotic species on measures of grassland plant diversity, including how this may vary with climatic conditions or large mammal herbivory. This study examined vegetation responses to long-term livestock grazing, including plant richness and diversity, as well as the contribution of exotic species to these metrics, across a network of 107 northern temperate grasslands in Alberta, Canada, spanning a broad aridity gradient. Exposure to grazing modestly increased plant richness, but did not alter Shannon's diversity, Simpson's diversity, or evenness, suggesting stability in floral diversity relative to grazing. However, grazing did increase grass cover while reducing shrub cover, the latter of which was only apparent in mesic grasslands. Unlike total plant diversity, exotic species richness and cover, together with exotic plant contributions to diversity, varied jointly with grazing and aridity. While long-term grazing increased exotic species, this response was most apparent in wetter areas, and non-grazed grasslands remained more resistant to the presence of exotics. Several exotic species were positive indicators of grazing in wetter grasslands, and coincided with lower native species cover, indicating grazing may be facilitating a shift from native to exotic vegetation under these conditions. Overall, our results indicate that while long-term grazing has altered the composition and cover of certain functional groups, including favoring exotics and minimizing woody vegetation in mesic areas, overall changes to plant diversity were limited. Additionally, these findings suggest that semi-arid northern temperate grasslands remain relatively resistant to grazing effects, including their susceptibility to exotic plant encroachment. These results improve our understanding of how ongoing grazing exposure may impact grassland diversity, including efforts to conserve native vegetation, as well as the important role of climate in altering fundamental grassland responses to grazing.