This award is funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Public Law 111-5).
Despite interest and debate, the importance of top predators in terrestrial ecosystems remains largely unresolved. Although predators can strongly suppress the abundance of their prey, it is unclear is how these direct effects ripple through food webs to indirectly influence plant communities and ecosystems. It remains unclear whether predators influence plant productivity and diversity by influencing the abundance or behavior of their herbivorous prey. Research will examine how avian and mammalian predators influence the survival, behavior and abundance of a 3-species assemblage of small mammals. In-turn, it will be determined how this rodent assemblage influences plant abundance, grassland productivity, community composition and exotic plant invasion in the presence and absence of predators. This study will reveal processes structuring natural grassland ecosystems, providing information essential for maintaining and restoring these communities and the ecosystem services they provide in the face of exotic plant invasions and anthropogenic disturbances. Additionally, this research will advance educational goals by providing structured research experiences for undergraduates, opportunities for Native American students, and teacher training through the Blackfoot Challenge, a consortium of local ranchers, government scientists, and NGOs whose goal is to preserve the rural lifestyle and protect habitat in Montana. Finally, research will provide pertinent monitoring information for State and Federal biologists who manage the lands where experiments will be conducted.