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1 April 2013 The Overlooked Benefits of Wildfire
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Stephens and colleagues (2012) examined the efficacy of fuel treatments in reducing susceptibility to uncharacteristically severe fires in seasonally dry US forests. They were overly optimistic in stating that the effects of thinning on wildlife have “few unintended consequences” with “very subtle effects or no measurable effects at all” and failed to recognize the ecological benefits of high-severity fires that are actually below historic levels.

Stephens and colleagues did not include studies documenting adverse effects of thinning on small mammal prey species for northern spotted owls (Strix occidentalis caurina; e.g., Meyer et al. 2005) or on rare species, such as black-backed woodpeckers (Picoides arcticus; Hutto 2008). Nor did they address “ecological trap” phenomena created by silvicultural activities without evolutionary precedent—a factor that can draw declining postfire specialists like olive-sided flycatchers (Contopus cooperi) into managed environments wherein they suffer poor nest success (Robertson and Hutto 2007).

Moreover, Stephens and colleagues did not fully represent the benefits of high-severity fire by limiting analysis to the earliest postfire period (0–4 years postfire), thus excluding the portions of the data sets that they used that show that more bird species increase than decrease in high-severity fire areas after several years. In addition, the impetus for thinning is overstated. Only one study from one region is cited to suggest that fire severity is increasing and that it should be mitigated via thinning, but the authors did not mention that current data show no increase in fire severity in many western US regions. Nor did Stephens and colleagues account for thinning's impacts on imperiled species dependent on high-severity fire that have already experienced a severe loss of suitable habitat from fire suppression, such as the buff-breasted flycatcher (Empidonax fulvifrons) in southwestern US forests (Conway and Kirkpatrick 2007).

There is an urgent need for scientists to report on the myriad ecosystem benefits of wildfires, including high-severity fires, and to effectively document the impacts of fuel treatments on wildlife, especially rare species, so that managers are fully aware of the tradeoffs involved.

References cited

  1. CJ Conway , C. Kirkpatrick 2007. Effect of forest fire suppression on buff-breasted flycatchers. Journal of Wildlife Management 71:445–457. Google Scholar

  2. RL. Hutto 2008. The ecological importance of severe wildfires: Some like it hot. Ecological Applications 18: 1827–1834. Google Scholar

  3. MD Meyer , MP North , DA. Kelt 2005. Short-term effects of fire and forest thinning on truffle abundance and consumption by Neotamias speciosus in the Sierra Nevada of California. Canadian Journal of Forest Research 35: 1061–1070. Google Scholar

  4. BA Robertson, RL. Hutto 2007. Is selectively harvested forest an ecological trap for olive-sided flycatchers? Condor 109: 109–121. Google Scholar

  5. SL Stephens , JD McIver , REJ Boerner , CJ Fettig , JB Fontaine , BR Hartsough , PL Kennedy , DW. Schwilk 2012. The effects of forest fuel-reduction treatments in the United States. BioScience 62: 549–560. Google Scholar

Chad T. Hanson, Dominick A. Dellasala, and Monica L. Bond "The Overlooked Benefits of Wildfire," BioScience 63(4), 243, (1 April 2013). https://doi.org/10.1525/bio.2013.63.4.21
Published: 1 April 2013
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