The joint effects of fire and herbivory on hardwood regeneration on the eastern Edwards Plateau
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The failure of regeneration of oak (Quercus spp.) and other hardwood species has been noted throughout eastern North America as well as on the eastern Edwards Plateau of central Texas. Previous research has suggested that two factors—prolonged periods of fire suppression and high densities of white-tailed deer—may be particularly influential in preventing seedlings of certain species from reaching the adult size class. It is also possible that these two factors interact, and the success of reintroducing fire to promote hardwood regeneration may depend on local deer density. This study, composed of observational and experimental components, first compared browsing frequency on woody plants in burned and unburned plots at six sites in central Texas. We found that although fire history did not affect browsing frequency, browsing frequency varied significantly among sites (likely due to differences in local deer densities) and among species. In our experimental study, we used cages to protect woody plants from deer herbivory in burned and unburned areas and compared growth after one year to plants of similar size and species that were exposed to herbivory. Plants in burned areas were significantly more likely to increase in height than plants in unburned areas. Similarly, plants protected from herbivory were more likely to increase in height after one year than plants that were browsed. There were no significant differences in the amount of growth woody plants in burned and unburned areas or plants that were caged or uncaged put on during one year. This is likely due to the extreme hot and dry weather that occurred across central Texas during the course of this study. These results support previous research showing that deer are currently limiting hardwood growth of multiple species on the eastern Edwards Plateau. Further, although it appears that fire can be used to stimulate hardwood growth (particularly during a non-drought year) successful hardwood regeneration is unlikely at current deer densities.