The Rangeland Journal The Rangeland Journal Society
Rangeland ecology and management
RESEARCH ARTICLE

Exploring relationships between native vertebrate biodiversity and grazing land condition

Scott A. Parsons A , Alex Kutt B , Eric P. Vanderduys C , Justin J. Perry C and Lin Schwarzkopf A D
+ Author Affiliations
- Author Affiliations

A Centre for Tropical Biodiversity and Climate Change, College of Science and Engineering, James Cook University, Townsville, Qld 4811, Australia.

B Bush Heritage Australia, Level 1, 395 Collins St, Melbourne, Vic. 3000, Australia.

C CSIRO Land and Water, Townsville, Qld 4811, Australia.

D Corresponding author. Email: lin.schwarzkopf@jcu.edu.au

The Rangeland Journal 39(1) 25-37 https://doi.org/10.1071/RJ16049
Submitted: 26 May 2016  Accepted: 4 January 2017   Published: 3 February 2017

Abstract

Although commercial grazing can degrade natural habitats, sustainably grazed land may be effective for wildlife conservation. Thus, land condition frameworks that assess the landscape quality of grazed land may also be useful for assessment of habitat quality for wildlife. However, the relationship between the condition of grazed land and native biodiversity is mostly unknown, and this knowledge gap must be addressed to adequately balance commercial production and conservation. In the present case study we determined the relevance of a widely used grazing land condition scale to understanding native vertebrate species richness and abundance (birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals and all these vertebrate classes grouped) in grazed rangelands in northern Australia (~24–13°S; annual rainfall ranging from >1200 to <400 mm), sampled over approximately 10 years from 17 unique sites, containing 381 1-ha study plots. We defined the land condition scale relative to climate and comprehensive assessment of habitat attributes, and then described the relationships between land condition, habitat and biodiversity. The land condition scale partially explained richness and abundance patterns only for mammals (especially rodents), which tended to be higher in better-condition pasture. For other vertebrate groups, the scale was a very poor descriptor of richness and abundance. The land condition scale was not useful to assess wildlife diversity primarily because ‘woody thickening’ (increases in woody vegetation on grazed land, including shrubs and trees) lowers the ‘grazing value’ of land while also generally promoting vertebrate diversity. In line with this, biodiversity decreased with increasing bare ground and erosion, together with, and in the absence of, vegetation cover (i.e. desertification), consistent with grazing land degradation. The present study supports observations that land clearing and reductions in woody vegetation on grazed rangelands are particularly detrimental to native vertebrates.

Additional keywords: biodiversity conservation, grasslands, land condition index, land management, rangeland ecology, savanna woodlands.


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