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Canada lynx use of burned areas: Conservation implications of changing fire regimes

13 Mar 2017


A fundamental problem in ecology is forecasting how species will react to major disturbances. As the climate warms, large, frequent, and severe fires are restructuring forested landscapes at large spatial scales, with unknown impacts on imperilled predators. We use the United States federally Threatened Canada lynx as a case study to examine how predators navigate recent large burns, with particular focus on habitat features and the spatial configuration (e.g., distance to edge) that enabled lynx use of these transformed landscapes. We coupled GPS location data of lynx in Washington in an area with several recent large fires and a number of GIS layers of habitat data to develop models of lynx habitat selection in recent burns. Random Forest habitat models showed lynx-selected islands of forest skipped by large fires, residual vegetation, and areas where some trees survived to use newly burned areas. Lynx used burned areas as early as 1 year postfire, which is much earlier than the 2–4 decades postfire previously thought for this predator. These findings are encouraging for predator persistence in the face of fires, but increasingly severe fires or management that reduces postfire residual trees or slow regeneration will likely jeopardize lynx and other predators. Fire management should change to ensure heterogeneity is retained within the footprint of large fires to enable viable predator populations as fire regimes worsen with climate change.

As the climate warms, forest fires are increasing in frequency, intensity, and size, raising questions as to how forest carnivores will respond. We used GPS data from collared lynx to explore how these forest carnivores use recently burned areas and older burned areas. Lynx used recent burns sooner than expected, relying on residual structure such as fire skips, while in old burns, lynx used both residual structure and densely regenerating trees regardless of forest type.

Click here to view the full article which appeared in Ecology and Evolution

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