Mature chaparral vegetation in the San Gabriel Mountains, California, resulting from long fire-return intervals (50–70 yr), has resulted in reduced visibility and availability and quality of forage, all of which are important attributes of mountain sheep (Ovis canadensis) habitat. Concomitantly, vegetation changes have decreased availability and quality of forage. We developed a resource-selection model to determine the effect of fire history on habitat use by mountain sheep, examined the hypotheses that habitat selection was associated with fire occurrence, and determined whether fire occurrence influenced the amount of potential habitat available to mountain sheep. The best model indicated that mountain sheep selected vegetation that had burned within 15 yr and avoided areas that had not burned within that time frame. We then used our model to quantify potential changes in mountain sheep habitat that have occurred over time based on fire conditions. We identified 390 km2 of mountain sheep habitat that existed in 2002 (when only 63 mountain sheep were tallied), 486 km2 in 1980 (when the mountain sheep population was at its highest), and 422 km2 in 2004 (just after a series of large wildfires). We also estimated that 615 km2 of suitable habitat would be available in a hypothetical situation in which the entire study area burned. Our results suggest that restoration of mountain sheep to their historical distribution in chaparral ecosystems will depend upon more frequent fires in areas formerly occupied by those specialized herbivores.
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Vol. 61 • No. 6