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First Advisor

David S. Maehr


A restored elk (Cervus elaphus) population in eastern Kentucky may be affecting ecosystem processes in a landscape composed of reclaimed grassland expanses and isolated forest remnants. Elk routinely select forested ridge-tops as resting and ruminating sites. These locations are characterized by sparse or absent leaf litter, trampled and diminished vegetation, large deposits of dung, and urine-saturated soils. In fall 2003, a series of fenced ungulate exclosures were constructed; 8 on highly disturbed forested ridge-tops and 8 on reclaimed grasslands. Soil analyses measured % moisture, pH, total nitrogen, total carbon, ammonium, nitrate, phosphorus, and major extractable cations in 0-10 cm and 10-20 cm cores. Litter depths and percentages of bare ground, vegetative cover, litter cover, and woody debris were measured. Sediment and water samples were collected monthly from sediment traps on reference and experimental ridge-tops. Studentfs t-tests were used to determine significance (p . 0.10) between treatments. Disturbed ridge-tops had higher soil ammonium (0.68 mg/kg, 10-20 cm) than reference sites (0.25 mg/kg) in spring 2004 and lower ammonium (0.72 mg/kg, 0-10 cm; 0.44 mg/kg, 10-20 cm) than reference sites (1.80 mg/kg, 0-10 cm; 0.94 mg/kg, 10-20 cm) in summer 2004. Total carbon was higher inside (67.57 g/kg, 0-10 cm) than outside (45.38 g/kg) of ridge-top exclosures in fall 2004. Soil moisture, litter depths, and vegetative cover were generally lower, while % bare ground was higher on disturbed ridge-tops. Sediment collected from traps averaged 2.21g/m2 inside exclosures, 2.86 g/m2 outside exclosures, and 0.39 g/m2 on reference ridge-tops. These data suggest that this reintroduced species is changing several attributes of the Cumberland Plateau landscape. The lack of a predator such as the gray wolf (Canis lupis) or cougar (Puma concolor) likely contributes to the development of habitual elk use of landscape features such as remnant ridge-top forests. Such concentrated use may create conditions for the colonization of certain plant species including rare natives and invasive exotics. Continued monitoring of high use areas is recommended so that managers can fully understand the long-term impact of the return of this large, gregarious herbivore, and that appropriate management actions can be developed to promote native biodiversity.