Both fire and conifer encroachment can markedly alter big sagebrush communities and thus habitat quality and quantity for wildlife. We investigated how conifer encroachment and spring prescribed burning affected forage and cover resources for a sagebrush specialist, the pygmy rabbit. We studied these dynamics at spring prescribed burns in southwestern Montana and eastern Idaho during the summer of 2011. Within each spring prescribed burn, we established plots that described the habitat conditions for pygmy rabbits (forage plant biomass and habitat components that influence predation risk) in areas that were burned, adjacent areas of conifer encroachment, and areas that were neither burned nor encroached. We analyzed the data for significant differences in habitat conditions between the paired reference and encroachment plots and modeled when the burned areas would approximate the conditions on the paired reference plots. Biomass of forage plants and habitat components that reduce predation risk differed between undisturbed reference plots and areas that were either burned or encroached with > 30% conifer canopy. Our models estimated that 13–27 yr were required for a spring prescribed burn to provide levels of cover and forage resources similar to sagebrush steppe reference plots. We documented that vegetation composition was associated with the plot designations (burn, reference, or conifer encroachment), but not with other abiotic factors, such as soil texture, aspect, or study site; this suggested that the documented differences in habitat were related to the treatments, rather than being site-specific characteristics. The information from this study can contribute to habitat management plans for high-elevation mountain big sagebrush sites where conifer encroachment is altering habitat for sagebrush-dependent wildlife species.
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