Prescribed Fire in the Piney Woods

Researchers captured very few black racers the first year after the burn. Photo by Chris Evans, courtesy of Bugwood.

Effects on amphibians and reptiles

Forest managers across North America use prescribed burning for many reasons—restoring ecosystem functions, improving wildlife habitat, reducing wildlife hazard, to name a few. Prescribed fire can have both beneficial and negative effects on specific plants and animals. Managers are increasingly sensitive to possible effects of fire on amphibians and reptiles in a time when the populations of these animals—collectively termed herpetofauna—are declining.

Southern Research Station (SRS) scientists recently published findings about the effects on herpetofauna of frequent prescribed fire in the pine woodlands of the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas and Oklahoma. Key results from The Forest Ecology and Management article by SRS researchers Roger Perry, Craig Rudolph, and Ron Thill provide important information for managers planning the short-rotation burns needed to restore and maintain pine woodlands.

“Knowing how amphibian and reptile populations respond to prescribed burning is important for planning and carrying out ecologically sensitive burning programs,” says Perry, SRS research wildlife biologist based in Hot Springs, Arkansas. “There’s been a lot of research comparing herpetofauna populations in burned versus unburned areas just after prescribed fire, but fewer on what happens in the interval between burns in frequently burned ecosystems.”

The researchers assessed changes in abundance of 36 individual amphibian and reptile species during the 3-year interval between fires in woodlands that were restored and maintained to enhance habitat for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. Overall, they found only minor changes to the herpetofaunal community during the 3 years between burns.

Specific findings included:

  • Some species, especially toads and ground skinks, were more abundant during the first months after the burn, suggesting that they may benefit from the open understory conditions created initially by prescribed fire.
  • Capture rates for only two of the 36 species sampled were lower the first year after burning compared to the second and third years after burning. Research suggests that one of the species, black racers, may avoid crossing the open areas created by fire the first year after burning, making them more scarce in recently burned areas.
  • Though no significant differences in capture rates of salamanders were found among the 3 years, the researchers note that species that rely on moist soil and leaf litter may not benefit from frequent burning.

“Burning is not a panacea for all species,” says Perry. “Some species such as plethodontid (lungless) salamanders, which do not have an aquatic stage, rely on moist soil and litter to reproduce. Species like these will likely benefit from retaining unburned areas, greenbelts, or less frequently burned moist forests as part of a varied landscape.”

Read the full text of the article.

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