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American bison (Bison bison)

Ungulate preference for burned patches reveals strenght of fire-grazing interaction

  • August 12, 2011
  • by Brady W. Allred, Samuel D. Fuhlendorf, David M. Engle, R. Dwayne Elmore

The interactions between fire and grazing are widespread throughout fire‐dependent landscapes. The utilization of burned areas by grazing animals establishes the fire–grazing interaction, but the preference for recently burned areas relative to other influences (water, topography, etc.) is unknown. In this study, we determine the strength of the fire–grazing interaction by quantifying the influence of fire on ungulate site selection. We compare the preference for recently burned patches relative to the influence of other environmental factors that contribute to site selection; compare that preference between native and introduced ungulates; test relationships between area burned and herbivore preference; and determine forage quality and quantity as mechanisms of site selection. We used two large ungulate species at two grassland locations within the southern Great Plains, USA. At each location, spatially distinct patches were burned within larger areas through time, allowing animals to select among burned and unburned areas. Using fine scale ungulate location data, we estimated resource selection functions to examine environmental factors in site selection. Ungulates preferred recently burned areas and avoided areas with greater time since fire, regardless of the size of landscape, herbivore species, or proportion of area burned. Forage quality was inversely related to time since fire, while forage quantity was positively related. We show that fire is an important component of large ungulate behavior with a strong influence on site selection that drives the fire–grazing interaction. This interaction is an ecosystem process that supersedes fire and grazing as separate factors, shaping grassland landscapes. Inclusion of the fire–grazing interaction into ecological studies and conservation practices of fire‐prone systems will aid in better understanding and managing these systems.

PUBLICATION AVAILABLE AT: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ece3.12