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The Ecological Importance of Severe Wildfires: Some Like it Hot

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Many scientists and forest land managers concur that past fire suppression, grazing, and timber harvesting practices have created unnatural and unhealthy conditions in the dry, ponderosa pine forests of the western United States. Specifically, such forests are said to carry higher fuel loads and experience fires that are more severe than those that occurred historically. It remains unclear, however, how far these generalizations can be extrapolated in time and space, and how well they apply to the more mesic ponderosa pine systems and to other forest systems within the western United States. I use data on the pattern of distribution of one bird species (Black-backed Woodpecker, Picoides arcticus) as derived from 16 465 sample locations to show that, in western Montana, this bird species is extremely specialized on severely burned forests. Such specialization has profound implications because it suggests that the severe fires we see burning in many forests in the Intermountain West are not entirely “unnatural” or “unhealthy.” Instead, severely burned forest conditions have probably occurred naturally across a broad range of forest types for millennia. These findings highlight the fact that severe fire provides an important ecological backdrop for fire specialists like the Black-backed Woodpecker, and that the presence and importance of severe fire may be much broader than commonly appreciated.

R.L. Hutto

Hutto RL. The Ecological Importance of Severe Wildfires: Some Like it Hot. Ecological Applications. 2008 ;18.

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