Untangling the effects of fire, grazing, and land-use legacies on grassland butterfly communities

Raymond A. Moranz, Diane M. Debinski, Devan A. McGranahan, David M. Engle, James R. Miller

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Many grassland ecosystems are disturbance-dependent, having evolved under the pressures of fire and grazing. Restoring these disturbances can be controversial, particularly when valued resources are thought to be disturbance-sensitive. We tested the effects of fire and grazing on butterfly species richness and population density in an economically productive grassland landscape of the central U. S. Three management treatments were applied: (1) patch-burngraze-rotational burning of three spatially distinct patches within a pasture, and moderately-stocked cattle grazing (N = 5); (2) graze-and-burn-burning entire pasture every 3 years, and moderately-stocked cattle grazing (N = 4); and (3) burn-only-burning entire pasture every 3 years, but no cattle grazing (N = 4). Butterfly abundance was sampled using line transect distance sampling in 2008 and 2009, with six 100-m transects per pasture. Butterfly species richness did not respond to management treatment, but was positively associated with pre-treatment proportion of native plant cover. Population density of two prairie specialists (Cercyonis pegala and Speyeria idalia) and one habitat generalist (Danaus plexippus) was highest in the burn-only treatment, whereas density of one habitat generalist (Cupido comyntas) was highest in the patch-burn graze treatment. Treatment application affected habitat structural characteristics including vegetation height and cover of bare ground. Historic land uses have reduced native plant cover and permitted exotic plant invasion; for some butterfly species, these legacies had a greater influence than management treatments on butterfly density. Conservation of native insect communities in altered grasslands might require native plant restoration in addition to restoration of disturbance processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2719-2746
Number of pages28
JournalBiodiversity and Conservation
Issue number11
StatePublished - Sep 2012


  • Butterflies
  • Grazing
  • Habitat management
  • Invasive species
  • Prairie
  • Prescribed burning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


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