Information about avian responses to fire in the U.S. Rocky Mountains is based solely on studies of crown fires. However, fire management in this region is based primarily on studies of low-elevation ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) forests maintained largely by frequent understory fires. In contrast to both of these trends, most Rocky Mountain forests are subject to mixed severity fire regimes. As a result, our knowledge of bird responses to fire in the region is incomplete and skewed toward ponderosa pine forests. Research in recent large wildfires across the Rocky Mountains indicates that large burns support diverse avifauna. In the absence of controlled studies of bird responses to fire, we compared reproductive success for six cavity-nesting species using results from studies in burned and unburned habitats. Birds in ponderosa pine forests burned by stand-replacement fire tended to have higher nest success than individuals of the same species in unburned habitats, but unburned areas are needed to serve species dependent upon live woody vegetation, especially foliage gleaners. Over the last century, fire suppression, livestock grazing, and logging altered the structure and composition of many low-elevation forests, leading to larger and more severe burns. In higher elevation forests, changes have been less marked. Traditional low-severity prescribed fire is not likely to replicate historical conditions in these mixed or high-severity fire regimes, which include many mixed coniferous forests and all lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) and spruce-fir (Picea-Abies) forests. We suggest four research priorities: (1) the effects of fire severity and patch size on species' responses to fire, (2) the possibility that postfire forests are ephemeral sources for some bird species, (3) the effect of salvage logging prescriptions on bird communities, and (4) experiments that illustrate bird responses to prescribed fire and other forest restoration methods. This research is urgent if we are to develop fire management strategies that reduce fire risk and maintain habitat for avifauna and other wildlife of the Rocky Mountains.
Additional publication details
Variation in fire regimes of the rocky mountains: Implications for avian communities and fire management