Buff-breasted flycatchers (Empidonax fulvifrons) are rare in the United States due to a >90% reduction in breeding distribution. Previous authors have implicated fire suppression in montane woodlands as the underlying cause of population declines and range contraction. We examined the effect of fire suppression on population declines of buff-breasted flycatchers by comparing both presence and abundance of flycatchers in areas with and without evidence of recent fire in 9 mountain ranges in southern Arizona, USA. We also replicated previous survey efforts conducted in 1980–1983 and 1995–1996 to determine population trajectory. Twenty-two (63%) of 35 survey routes had negative trends, and the average slope of the declines was −0.105 (10.5% annual decline). The number of buff-breasted flycatchers detected at a survey point was positively associated with severity of recent fires, and flycatchers were particularly associated with areas that had evidence of high-severity surface fire. However, we failed to detect flycatchers in 5 canyons that recently burned, which suggests one or more of the following: 1) fire suppression is not the cause (or is not the main cause) of population decline and range contraction, 2) flycatchers do not colonize burned areas until >10 years postfire, 3) low- or medium-severity fires are insufficient to make fire-suppressed areas suitable for breeding flycatchers, or 4) local recruitment and immigration are insufficient to allow buff-breasted flycatchers to expand into recent fire-restored areas. Continued suppression of high-severity forest fires in the southwestern United States may eventually result in the extirpation of buff-breasted flycatchers. A landscape that includes a mosaic of recently burned and unburned forest patches appears to be most suitable for buff-breasted flycatchers. Prescribed burning is unlikely to help restore flycatcher populations unless burns are of high severity, conditions typically avoided during prescribed burns for safety reasons.
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Vol. 71 • No. 2