Community occupancy responses of small mammals to restoration treatments in ponderosa pine forests, northern Arizona, USA

Posted on 2016-08-04 - 13:23

In western North American conifer forests, wildfires are increasing in frequency and severity due to heavy fuel loads that have accumulated after a century of fire suppression. Forest restoration treatments (e.g., thinning and/or burning) are being designed and implemented at large spatial and temporal scales in an effort to reduce fire risk and restore forest structure and function. In ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) forests, predominantly open forest structure and a frequent, low-severity fire regime constituted the evolutionary environment for wildlife that persisted for thousands of years. Small mammals are important in forest ecosystems as prey and in affecting primary production and decomposition. During 2006–2009, we trapped eight species of small mammals at 294 sites in northern Arizona and used occupancy modeling to determine community responses to thinning and habitat features. The most important covariates in predicting small mammal occupancy were understory vegetation cover, large snags, and treatment. Our analysis identified two generalist species found at relatively high occupancy rates across all sites, four open-forest species that responded positively to treatment, and two dense-forest species that responded negatively to treatment unless specific habitat features were retained. Our results indicate that all eight small mammal species can benefit from restoration treatments, particularly if aspects of their evolutionary environment (e.g., large trees, snags, woody debris) are restored. The occupancy modeling approach we used resulted in precise species-level estimates of occupancy in response to habitat attributes for a greater number of small mammal species than in other comparable studies. We recommend our approach for other studies faced with high variability and broad spatial and temporal scales in assessing impacts of treatments or habitat alteration on wildlife species. Moreover, since forest planning efforts are increasingly focusing on progressively larger treatment implementation, better and more efficiently obtained ecological information is needed to inform these efforts.


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