Altered species interactions are difficult to predict and yet may drive the response of ecological communities to climate change. We show that declining snowpack strengthens the impacts of a generalist herbivore, elk (Cervus elaphus), on a common tree species. Thick snowpack substantially reduces elk visitation to sites; aspen (Populus tremuloides) shoots in these areas experience lower browsing rates, higher survival and enhanced recruitment. Aspen inside herbivore exclosures have greatly increased recruitment, particularly at sites with thick snowpack. We suggest that long-term decreases in snowpack could help explain a widespread decline of aspen through previously unconsidered relationships. More generally, reduced snowpack across the Rocky Mountains, combined with rising elk populations, may remove the conditions needed for recruitment of this ecologically important tree species. These results highlight that herbivore behavioural responses to altered abiotic conditions are critical determinants of plant persistence. Predictions of climate change impacts must not overlook the crucial importance of species interactions.

  • Received July 16, 2011.
  • Accepted September 13, 2011.
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