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Fire helps restore natural disturbance regime to benefit rare and endangered marsh birds endemic to the Colorado River

Conway, Courtney J., Nadeau, Christopher P., Piest, Linden
Ecological applications 2010 v.20 no.7 pp. 2024-2035
Ixobrychus exilis, Rallus limicola, basins, birds, endangered species, flood control, floods, marshes, prescribed burning, probability, rivers, surveys, sympatry, vegetation structure, watersheds, Colorado River, Mexico, Southwestern United States
Large flood events were part of the historical disturbance regime within the lower basin of most large river systems around the world. Large flood events are now rare in the lower basins of most large river systems due to flood control structures. Endemic organisms that are adapted to this historical disturbance regime have become less abundant due to these dramatic changes in the hydrology and the resultant changes in vegetation structure. The Yuma Clapper Rail is a federally endangered bird that breeds in emergent marshes within the lower Colorado River basin in the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico. We evaluated whether prescribed fire could be used as a surrogate disturbance event to help restore historical conditions for the benefit of Yuma Clapper Rails and four sympatric marsh‐dependent birds. We conducted call‐broadcast surveys for marsh birds within burned and unburned (control) plots both pre‐ and post‐burn. Fire increased the numbers of Yuma Clapper Rails and Virginia Rails, and did not affect the numbers of Black Rails, Soras, and Least Bitterns. We found no evidence that detection probability of any of the five species differed between burn and control plots. Our results suggest that prescribed fire can be used to set back succession of emergent marshlands and help mimic the natural disturbance regime in the lower Colorado River basin. Hence, prescribed fire can be used to help increase Yuma Clapper Rail populations without adversely affecting sympatric species. Implementing a coordinated long‐term fire management plan within marshes of the lower Colorado River may allow regulatory agencies to remove the Yuma Clapper Rail from the endangered species list.