Sagebrush steppe systems represent one of North America’s greatest conservation challenges. Shrinking habitat and declining animal populations have prompted researchers to fill gaps in our understanding of the ecology of this system, particularly at a scale relevant to individual animals. What animals eat and why are fundamental questions linked to habitat quality and use. We investigated the temporal and spatial heterogeneity of the dietary quality of food to better understand habitat use by a sagebrush specialist, the pygmy rabbit (Brachylagus idahoensis). Within a foraging patch, pygmy rabbits selectively browse on individual Wyoming big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata wyomingensis) that are high in nitrogen. Therefore, we hypothesized that variation in nitrogen would influence habitat use by pygmy rabbits at the patch scale. As a first step to test this hypothesis, we investigated the temporal and spatial variation in nitrogen content of patches of sagebrush within a study site in southcentral Idaho. Nitrogen concentration was determined using the Kjeldahl method. We used multivariate analysis of variance to test for differences in nitrogen content among three months within the winter season (November, January, and March) and between patches of sagebrush on mounds with deeper soils where pygmy rabbits burrow (on-mound) versus patches of sagebrush in shallower soils adjacent to mounds (off-mound). We found that nitrogen content of sagebrush was temporally and spatially dynamic. For both on- and off-mound plants, nitrogen content was significantly higher in March than November. Regardless of season, nitrogen content was significantly higher in plants on mounds compared to off-mound plants. Understanding the phenology and spatial heterogeneity of nitrogen content will help ecologists better assess diet quality and habitat quality within and among landscapes and seasons. Moreover, effective management and restoration efforts of sagebrush depend upon understanding patterns in nutrient availability to pygmy rabbits and other sagebrush specialists.
Williams, Stephanie; Nobler, Jordan; Gehlken, Kristina; Rachlow, Janet; and Shipley, Lisa, "Temporal and Spatial Variation of Nitrogen in Wyoming Big Sagebrush" (2014). College of Arts and Sciences Presentations. 25.