Many species in North America are closely linked to natural disturbance processes and the habitat features created by them. As one such disturbance, wildland fire can create unique vegetation patterns on a forested landscape. Biological legacies, such as standing dead trees, dead and downed wood, and residual patches of live mature trees, can be important structures for maintaining stand-level biodiversity. Fire can also be an important tool for reducing hazardous fuels and maintaining an open condition in some ecosystems. Managing and restoring fire-dependent ecosystems can present unique challenges for managers. Two case studies are presented here, each addressing challenges to forest restoration efforts within fire-dependent ecosystems.
The first examines standing dead trees that resulted from three different treatments in the Great Lakes region of North America. Standing dead trees, or snags, are unique features of ecosystems representing post-disturbance biological legacies. As such, the abundance, volume, size and distribution of snags can affect wildlife communities and stand-level biological diversity. While the importance of snags is widely recognized, factors influencing the use of snags by wildlife are less understood. Characteristics such as the wood properties of different tree species, local environmental conditions, and the proximate cause of tree death (insects, disease, senescence, wind, fire, etc.) can influence decomposition and subsequent use by wildlife. Building on previous research in eastern Upper Michigan, the objective of this study was to characterize the development of snag decay patterns in jack pine (Pinus banksiana Lam.) and correlate these to different measures of use by woodpeckers (Picidae) and subcortical insects. In 2014, woodpecker excavations in snags were measured across three treatments (girdling, n=35; prescribed fire, n=35; and topping, n=35). The topping treatment took place in 2004, the prescribed fire took place in 2003, and the girdling treatment in 2007. Principal component analysis was used to examine the relationships between snag and decay characteristics, and past insect activity. An information theoretic approach to model selection was then used to rank potential predictors of woodpecker foraging activity and cavities. Overall, girdled snags had the lowest levels of past insect activity, particularly midway up the bole where the tree was originally girdled. Topped snags were softer, or more easily penetrable, than the other two treatments and had the highest levels of past insect use. The prescribed fire treatment had the greatest number of potential cavities and the greatest number of foraging excavations. The models predicting foraging activity suggested that treatment type was the most influential variable, while the models for predicting potential cavities suggested a combination of past foraging activity and snag diameter were most influential. These results may help inform potential snag treatment options when managing for biological legacies within pine forests of the Great Lakes region.
The second case uses qualitative data from interviews with land managers to examine perceptions of management for an endangered species whose habitat requirements largely depend on frequent fire. Management of endangered species has been criticized as emphasizing conservation of individual species, while inadvertently diverting resources from or potentially running counter to more broad-based public land management objectives. Moreover, there is concern about the long-term prognosis for species that have met their recovery goals as reduced protections may result in fewer available resources and potentially less management attention for downlisted or de-listed species. Here we investigate the case of the red-cockaded woodpecker (Leuconotopicus borealis Vieillot) that was listed as endangered soon after the passing of the Endangered Species Act in 1973. Through semi-structured interviews with natural resource professionals in the Southeast Coastal Plain region (n=32), we examine manager perspectives on conserving the red-cockaded woodpecker, how their efforts align or conflict with other objectives, and what lessons might be learned from this case to inform others. In general, managers viewed red-cockaded woodpecker habitat management (e.g., thinning and burning pine stands) as compatible with their other resource management objectives, particularly longleaf pine (Pinus palustris Mill.) ecosystem restoration. In some contexts, however, managers found that specific guidelines dictating the amount of habitat to be set aside for foraging per red-cockaded woodpecker group was a barrier to implementing restoration actions. Managers expected that efforts to provide habitat for red-cockaded woodpeckers would likely continue into the future regardless of the species’ conservation status. Managers also believed that more intensive strategies with a single species focus, such as using artificial inserts and translocation of individuals, would likely decrease over time. Overall, these perspectives suggest that one factor likely to contribute to the sustained recovery of an endangered species is the alignment of species recovery guidelines and objectives with broader ecosystem management or restoration objectives.