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Grazing affects vegetation diversity and heterogeneity in California vernal pools.

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Disturbance often increases local-scale (α) diversity by suppressing dominant competitors. However, widespread disturbances may also reduce biotic heterogeneity (β diversity) by making the identities and abundances of species more similar among patches. Landscape-scale (γ) diversity may also decline if disturbance-sensitive species are lost. California's vernal pool plant communities are species rich, in part because of two scales of β diversity: (1) within pools, as species composition changes with depth (referred to here as vertical β diversity), and (2) between pools, in response to dispersal limitation and variation in pool attributes (referred to here as horizontal β diversity). We asked how grazing by livestock, a common management practice, affects vernal pool plant diversity at multiple hierarchical spatial scales. In terms of abundance-weighted diversity, grazing increased α both within local pool habitat zones and at the whole-pool scale, as well as γ at the pasture scale without influencing horizontal or vertical β diversity. In terms of species richness, increases in α diversity within habitat zones and within whole pools led to small decreases in horizontal β diversity as species occupancy increased. This had a dampened effect on species richness at the γ (pasture) scale without any loss of disturbance-sensitive species. We conclude that grazing increases species richness and evenness (α) by reducing competitive dominance, without large disruptions to the critical spatial heterogeneity (β) that generates high landscape-level diversity (γ).

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