Conservation Research Laboratory: General Conservation Projects

Nate Gwinn


Differential response to fire by an exotic and an endemic species complicate endangered species conservation
  • Time Period: May 2006 to Oct 2007

  • Location: Mount Graham (Pinaleño Mountains), Graham County, Arizona, USA

Major Questions: The Nuttall Complex fire burned ~ 12029 ha in the Pinaleño Mountains of southeastern Arizona in summer 2004, including large areas of the upper elevation mixed conifer and spruce fir forests. Historically, mixed conifer forests in the Pinaleños experienced a low severity fire every 4 to 6 years, and spruce-fir forests experienced infrequent stand-replacement burns every 300 years. To investigate the effect of wildfire on exotic and introduced species, we looked at the differential use of burned and unburned areas by introduced Abert’s squirrels and the endemic and critically endangered Mount Graham red squirrel in the Pinaleños. We assessed effects of wildfire on habitat use of introduced Abert’s squirrels and native red squirrels by sampling species-specific feeding sign and employing radiotelemetry to reveal use of burned and unburned areas by both species. We document differential use of fire-impacted habitats that favors the introduced species thus complicating traditional conservation efforts used in forested environments.



Major Findings: Our study is the first to document the positive response of an exotic mammal and negative response of the native species to wildfire and suggests that fire must be used judiciously as a restoration tool. Abert’s squirrels thrive in mixed conifer forest, our study documented that Abert’s squirrels fed, moved and nested within mixed conifer forest affected by wildfire. Home ranges of Abert’s squirrels were smaller in burned than in unburned forest. This suggests that habitat created by wildfire was of higher quality than unburned areas. Abert’s squirrels selected sites that had more live trees, less logs, and higher canopy closure than random sites within the burned area, similar to characteristics of mature ponderosa pine forests that Abert’s squirrels prefer in native range. These characteristics include high basal area, mature trees with interlocking crowns, and an understory with little down and woody debris. Transect data on feeding sign also indicated that Abert’s squirrels remained in burned areas. In effect, wildfire may be improving habitat for Abert’s squirrels in mixed conifer forest by creating preferred structure.