Variation in sage-grouse habitat quality metrics across a gradient of feral horse use.
Feral horse (Equus ferus caballus) grazing can alter arid shrubland habitat in the western United States to the detriment of sympatric wildlife species, including the greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus). To date, studies of horse-influenced habitat alteration have only occurred in a few locations and have infrequently represented gradients of horse use. We investigated whether greater sage-grouse habitat quality metrics were negatively associated with feral horse use in southcentral Wyoming, USA. We also tested whether utilization distributions generated from feral horses tracked with global position system transmitters were correlated with dung pile density, our index of horse use. Dung pile density did not vary among utilization distribution levels, indicating utilization distributions were a poor predictor of cumulative horse use. Bare ground increased with dung pile density (β = 0.06, 85% CI = 0.04-0.18), and grass height exhibited a threshold response and began to decline after 638 piles/ha. Other habitat metrics including percent shrub cover, native perennial grass cover, and visual obstruction were better explained by topographic and temporal variation. Our results suggest that herd size reduction may limit soil erosion potential and improve desired herbaceous structure, though additional management actions regarding feral horse use are needed to sustain high-quality greater sage-grouse habitat.