School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences - Research Publications
Now showing items 1-12 of 668
Survey design for precise fire management conservation targets
Common goals of ecological fire management are to sustain biodiversity and minimize extinction risk. A novel approach to achieving these goals determines the relative proportions of vegetation growth stages (equivalent to successional stages, which are categorical representations of time since fire) that maximize a biodiversity index. The method combines data describing species abundances in each growth stage with numerical optimization to define an optimal growth-stage structure that provides a conservation-based operational target for managers. However, conservation targets derived from growth-stage optimization are likely to depend critically on choices regarding input data. There is growing interest in the use of growth-stage optimization as a basis for fire management, thus understanding of how input data influence the outputs is crucial. Simulated data sets provide a flexible platform for systematically varying aspects of survey design and species inclusions. We used artificial data with known properties, and a case-study data set from southeastern Australia, to examine the influence of (1) survey design (total number of sites and their distribution among growth stages) and (2) species inclusions (total number of species and their level of specialization) on the precision of conservation targets. Based on our findings, we recommend that survey designs for precise estimates would ideally involve at least 80 sites, and include at least 80 species. Greater numbers of sites and species will yield increasingly reliable results, but fewer might be sufficient in some circumstances. An even distribution of sites among growth stages was less important than the total number of sites, and omission of species is unlikely to have a major influence on results as long as several species specialize on each growth stage. We highlight the importance of examining the responses of individual species to growth stage before feeding survey data into the growth-stage optimization black box, and advocate use of a resampling procedure to determine the precision of results. Collectively, our findings form a reproducible guide to designing ecological surveys that yield precise conservation targets through growth-stage optimization, and ultimately help sustain biodiversity in fire-prone systems.
Assessing fire impacts on the carbon stability of fire-tolerant forests
The carbon stability of fire-tolerant forests is often assumed but less frequently assessed, limiting the potential to anticipate threats to forest carbon posed by predicted increases in forest fire activity. Assessing the carbon stability of fire-tolerant forests requires multi-indicator approaches that recognize the myriad ways that fires influence the carbon balance, including combustion, deposition of pyrogenic material, and tree death, post-fire decomposition, recruitment, and growth. Five years after a large-scale wildfire in southeastern Australia, we assessed the impacts of low- and high-severity wildfire, with and without prescribed fire (≤10 yr before), on carbon stocks in multiple pools, and on carbon stability indicators (carbon stock percentages in live trees and in small trees, and carbon stocks in char and fuels) in fire-tolerant eucalypt forests. Relative to unburned forest, high-severity wildfire decreased short-term (five-year) carbon stability by significantly decreasing live tree carbon stocks and percentage stocks in live standing trees (reflecting elevated tree mortality), by increasing the percentage of live tree carbon in small trees (those vulnerable to the next fire), and by potentially increasing the probability of another fire through increased elevated fine fuel loads. In contrast, low-severity wildfire enhanced carbon stability by having negligible effects on aboveground stocks and indicators, and by significantly increasing carbon stocks in char and, in particular, soils, indicating pyrogenic carbon accumulation. Overall, recent preceding prescribed fire did not markedly influence wildfire effects on short-term carbon stability at stand scales. Despite wide confidence intervals around mean stock differences, indicating uncertainty about the magnitude of fire effects in these natural forests, our assessment highlights the need for active management of carbon assets in fire-tolerant eucalypt forests under contemporary fire regimes. Decreased live tree carbon and increased reliance on younger cohorts for carbon recovery after high-severity wildfire could increase vulnerabilities to imminent fires, leading to decisions about interventions to maintain the productivity of some stands. Our multi-indicator assessment also highlights the importance of considering all carbon pools, particularly pyrogenic reservoirs like soils, when evaluating the potential for prescribed fire regimes to mitigate the carbon costs of wildfires in fire-prone landscapes.
Monitoring, imperfect detection, and risk optimization of a Tasmanian devil insurance population
Most species are imperfectly detected during biological surveys, which creates uncertainty around their abundance or presence at a given location. Decision makers managing threatened or pest species are regularly faced with this uncertainty. Wildlife diseases can drive species to extinction; thus, managing species with disease is an important part of conservation. Devil facial tumor disease (DFTD) is one such disease that led to the listing of the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) as endangered. Managers aim to maintain devils in the wild by establishing disease-free insurance populations at isolated sites. Often a resident DFTD-affected population must first be removed. In a successful collaboration between decision scientists and wildlife managers, we used an accessible population model to inform monitoring decisions and facilitate the establishment of an insurance population of devils on Forestier Peninsula. We used a Bayesian catch-effort model to estimate population size of a diseased population from removal and camera trap data. We also analyzed the costs and benefits of declaring the area disease-free prior to reintroduction and establishment of a healthy insurance population. After the monitoring session in May-June 2015, the probability that all devils had been successfully removed was close to 1, even when we accounted for a possible introduction of a devil to the site. Given this high probability and the baseline cost of declaring population absence prematurely, we found it was not cost-effective to carry out any additional monitoring before introducing the insurance population. Considering these results within the broader context of Tasmanian devil management, managers ultimately decided to implement an additional monitoring session before the introduction. This was a conservative decision that accounted for uncertainty in model estimates and for the broader nonmonetary costs of mistakenly declaring the area disease-free.
Frequent wildfires erode tree persistence and alter stand structure and initial composition of a fire-tolerant sub-alpine forest
QUESTION: Frequent severe wildfires have the potential to alter the structure and composition of forests in temperate biomes. While temperate forests dominated by resprouting trees are thought to be largely invulnerable to more frequent wildfires, empirical data to support this assumption are lacking. Does frequent fire erode tree persistence by increasing mortality and reducing regeneration, and what are the broader impacts on forest structure and understorey composition? LOCATION: Subâ alpine open Eucalyptus pauciflora forests, Australian Alps, Victoria, Australia. METHODS: We examined tree persistence and understorey composition of E. pauciflora open forests that were unburned, burned once, twice or three times by highâ severity wildfires between 2003 and 2013. At each of 20 sites (five per fire frequency class) we assessed extent of topâ kill and mortality of eucalypt clumps, spatial configuration of surviving and dead clumps, densities of new and lignotuberous eucalypt seedlings, and shrub and grass cover. RESULTS: At least 2Â yr after the last wildfire, proportions of topâ killed E. pauciflora stems were significantly higher, and densities of live basal resprouts significantly lower, at sites burned two or three times compared to once burned or unburned sites. Clump death increased to 50% of individuals at sites burned by three shortâ interval wildfires, which led to changes in live tree patchiness, as indicated by nearestâ neighbour indices. Increased tree mortality was not offset by seedling recruitment, which was significantly lower at the twiceâ and thriceâ burned sites relative to singleâ burn sites â although seedling recruitment was also influenced by topography and coarse woody debris. In addition to changes in the tree layer, the prominence of understorey shrubs was substantially reduced, and the frequency of grasses markedly increased, after two, and particularly three wildfires. CONCLUSIONS: Our study provides strong empirical evidence of ecologically significant change in E. pauciflora forests after shortâ interval severe wildfires, namely, erosion of the persistence niche of resprouting trees, and a shift in understorey dominance from shrubs to grasses. Our findings highlight the need to consider the impacts of compounded perturbation on forests under changing climates, including testing assumptions of longâ term persistence of resprouterâ dominated communities.
Impacts of human-induced environmental change in wetlands on aquatic animals
Many wetlands harbour highly diverse biological communities and provide extensive ecosystem services; however, these important ecological features are being altered, degraded and destroyed around the world. Despite a wealth of research on how animals respond to anthropogenic changes to natural wetlands and how they use created wetlands, we lack a broad synthesis of these data. While some altered wetlands may provide vital habitat, others could pose a considerable risk to wildlife. This risk will be heightened if such wetlands are ecological traps - preferred habitats that confer lower fitness than another available habitat. Wetlands functioning as ecological traps could decrease both local and regional population persistence, and ultimately lead to extinctions. Most studies have examined how animals respond to changes in environmental conditions by measuring responses at the community and population levels, but studying ecological traps requires information on fitness and habitat preferences. Our current lack of knowledge of individual-level responses may therefore limit our capacity to manage wetland ecosystems effectively since ecological traps require different management practices to mitigate potential consequences. We conducted a global meta-analysis to characterise how animals respond to four key drivers of wetland alteration: agriculture, mining, restoration and urbanisation. Our overarching goal was to evaluate the ecological impacts of human alterations to wetland ecosystems, as well as identify current knowledge gaps that limit both the current understanding of these responses and effective wetland management. We extracted 1799 taxon-specific response ratios from 271 studies across 29 countries. Community- (e.g. richness) and population-level (e.g. density) measures within altered wetlands were largely comparable to those within reference wetlands. By contrast, individual fitness measures (e.g. survival) were often lower, highlighting the potential limitations of using only community- and population-level measures to assess habitat quality. Only four studies provided habitat-preference data, preventing investigation of the potential for altered wetlands to function as ecological traps. This is concerning because attempts to identify ecological traps may detect previously unidentified conservation risks. Although there was considerable variability amongst taxa, amphibians were typically the most sensitive taxon, and thus, may be a valuable bio-indicator of wetland quality. Despite suffering reduced survival and reproduction, measures such as time to and mass at metamorphosis were similar between altered and reference wetlands, suggesting that quantifying metamorphosis-related measures in isolation may not provide accurate information on habitat quality. Our review provides the most detailed evaluation to date of the ecological impacts of human alterations to wetland ecosystems. We emphasise that the role of wetlands in human-altered ecosystems can be complex, as they may represent important habitat but also pose potential risks to animals. Reduced availability of natural wetlands is increasing the importance of altered wetlands for aquatic animals. Consequently, we need to define what represents habitat quality from the perspective of animals, and gain a greater understanding of the underlying mechanisms of habitat selection and how these factors could be manipulated. Furthermore, strategies to enhance the quality of these wetlands should be implemented to maximise their conservation potential.