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Linking fuel, habitat and ground-dwelling mammals in flammable landscapes

Rochelmeyer, Ellen, Di Stefano, Julian, Dorph, Annalie, Swan, Matthew
Forest ecology and management 2019 v.441 pp. 215-228
biodiversity, fauna, fuel loading, fuels, fuels (fire ecology), habitats, humans, landscapes, net primary productivity, prediction, prescribed burning, wildfires, Australia
Prescribed fire is often applied with the goal of reducing fuel loads and lessening the impact of future wildfires on humans. As fuel represents habitat for some animal species, fuel reduction treatments are likely to affect species’ access to resources. Understanding the interrelationships between fuel, habitat and animal occurrence will help managers of flammable landscapes meet the dual objective of reducing fuel loads and conserving biodiversity. In addition, should fuel hazard assessments reflect habitat structure, fuel hazard scores could be used to predict the response of animals to prescribed fire. This would be useful in many regions where fuel hazard assessments are routinely conducted, but data about habitat change or the direct response of animals are lacking. In this study, we tested the capacity of fuel hazard scores to predict both habitat structure and ground-dwelling mammal occurrence at 187 sites in the Otway Ranges, south-eastern Australia. First, we explored relationships between habitat structure and fuel hazard. Second, we investigated how animals responded to both habitat and fuel. Habitat complexity was positively related to overall fuel hazard, although this varied with net primary productivity. Habitat attributes were best at predicting the occurrence of eight out of nine ground-dwelling mammal species, although seven species were also correlated with components of fuel hazard. Some species were not strongly associated with either habitat or fuel. These species-specific relationships between habitat, fuel and fauna highlight the continuing importance of measuring habitat or animals directly when investigating faunal responses to disturbance. However, in the absence of these data, fire managers can use a common fuel assessment method to predict the effect of fuel reduction on habitat structure and the occurrence of some ground-dwelling mammals.