How wildfire prevention in California is threatening local bird populations - and increasing risk of fire

| 23rd February 2018
California wildfire management

Prescribed fire being used near Ukiah, California for this study

Wildfire prevention methods in California are not only harming avian populations - but are also *increasing* the risk of fire, according to a new study by scientists at the universities of Arizona and California. CATHERINE HARTE reports

The best available science tells us that managing chaparral imperils wildlife and increases fire risk.

The state of California in the United States last year suffered the most destructive and expensive year of firefighting in its history. One obvious solution would seem to be vegetation removal - clearing the land of anything that may burn. 

But scientists from the University of Arizona and the University of California, Berkeley, are showing that in California’s iconic shrubland ecosystem - chaparral - any such management can in fact devastate wild bird populations, while any benefit from fire-risk reduction is only temporary.

Erica Newman, lead author of the study and scientist at the University of Arizona School of Natural Resources and the Environment, said: “We studied bird populations following two types of vegetation removal - prescribed fire and mastication (the mechanical crushing of vegetation - because both management methods have been used to try to reduce wildfire risk in California chaparral.

Look and listen

“We know from multiple studies that any management eventually increases fire risk as invasive grasses move in,” says Newman. “But to add to this, we now know that mastication in particular is extremely harmful to bird populations.”

Chaparral is a fire-prone ecosystem in North America that is widespread throughout California. Although it makes up only six percent of California by area, it contains one-quarter of the species found in the California Floristic Province, a global biodiversity hotspot. To date, no other studies have compared the effects of different fire management types on California chaparral wildlife.

Using 24 five-acre plots in northern California, researchers reduced vegetation by 95 percent with either prescribed fire or mastication in three different seasons (winter, autumn and spring).

They then tracked bird populations in each experimental and control plot using point-count surveys, in which researchers look and listen for birds for a set amount of time. Jen Potts and Charles Vaughn, the co-authors, visited the plots hundreds of times over the course of five years. They counted 49 species and roughly 2,500 birds.

Although bird species diversity and abundances rebounded after one-time use of prescribed fires, most birds never returned to masticated sites. Mastication reduced the number of bird species by about 50 percent and reduced total numbers of birds by about 60 percent.

Under pressure

Michael L. Mann, assistant professor of geography at George Washington University, who was not part of this study, said: “The pressures on this ecosystem’s biodiversity are intense. There are over five million housing units in this ecosystem that need some form of fire protection, and wildfire risk and housing demand are only expected to increase in the next 50 years.”

Much of California’s chaparral is burning too frequently to replace itself because of human-caused ignitions and longer wildfire seasons due to climate change.

According to Scott Stephens, the principal investigator of the experiment at UC Berkeley, too-frequent fire can cause chaparral to be replaced by invasive grasses, which can increase fire risk.

This also leads to other problems. Grasses don’t hold soils in place, so deadly mudslides may follow wildfires, like those in Santa Barbara, California.

“A fire policy that would make more sense is to do a better job of land management planning and try to avoid the hazardous areas for building,” says Stephens.

Must do better

Erica Newman also stressed that previous fire policy hasn’t worked to protect people or wildlife. "The best available science tells us that managing chaparral imperils wildlife and increases fire risk. Our study continues to build the case that we should live densely and away from chaparral.”

She says that agencies like California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CALFIRE) should abandon their practice of clearing chaparral in remote areas. “Some management practices are not informed by science. We can do better.”

This Author

Catherine Harte is contributing editor of The Ecologist. This story is based on a news release from The University of Arizona. This study appears in the February issue of Journal of Applied Ecology.