Montana State University

MSU professor co-authors publication describing ways prescribed fires can affect ecosystems

December 13, 2016 -- Denise Hoepfner, MSU News Service

Andrea Litt. associate professor in MSU's Department of Ecology, has contributed to a paper that describes how prescribed fires used as a land management tool can, directly and indirectly, affect ecosystems. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham

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BOZEMAN -- Andrea Litt, associate professor in Montana State University’s Department of Ecology in the College of Letters and Science, has contributed to a paper that describes how prescribed fires used as a land management tool can directly and indirectly change ecosystems.

The Wildlife Society published the paper, “Effects of Prescribed Fire on Wildlife and Wildlife Habitat in Selected Ecosystems of North America,” as part of its technical review series. The Wildlife Society’s technical reviews are scientific analyses related to prominent topics and issues in wildlife science, management, conservation and policy that are written by panels of experts and are often used in preparing position statements, according to the organization website.

The review describes the effects of prescribed burning, which land managers in North America widely use to reduce fuel loads, enhance wildlife habitats, improve forage and watershed conditions, prepare seedbeds and control exotic weeds, among other reasons.  

Regardless of why prescribed fires are used, Litt said, they change the ecosystem in many ways and can create a mosaic of conditions on the landscape that may benefit some species and be detrimental to others.

“Fire regimes have been altered greatly over time, through changes in the frequency, timing and intensity of fire,” she said. “These changes, along with introductions of non-native plants and other factors, create novel conditions where fires may no longer behave in predictable ways, resulting in challenges for management and restoration.”

For the review, the authors used a regional approach, focusing on selected vegetation types, including southeastern pine and mixed pine-oak forests, eastern coastal marshes, Midwestern Jack pine forests, sagebrush ecosystems of the interior West, mixed-severity forests of the northern Rocky Mountains, subalpine and montane forests of the Canadian Rockies, southwestern ponderosa pine forests, desert grasslands, and shortgrass steppe ecosystems.

Litt, whose research at MSU focuses on the effects of human activities on wildlife populations and communities, authored the section on desert grasslands by bringing together existing research -- including her own.

In the section, Litt refers to the semi-desert grasslands that are distributed among 13 states in Mexico and reach into Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Using the compiled research, she discusses the historical and current use of fire, pointing out that Native Americans used fire for hunting and to improve pasture conditions. She also discusses the effects fire has on the wildlife in this region, including the ways some species avoid and respond to fire. She notes that some populations of species, such as raptors, may increase after fire because prey populations are more exposed. Some small grain-eating species of mammals and birds also benefit from fire by way of new growth of grasses and forbs.

“In general, species that prefer high cover and vertical structure decrease in presence and abundance following fire and species that prefer more open environments and foods that are stimulated by burning, (such as) seeds, increase in presence and abundance,” Litt wrote.

The section concludes with challenges that fire presents to the desert grassland ecosystem.

“One of the largest challenges in managing semi-desert grasslands currently is that the interactive effects of fire, non-native plants and other landscape changes on grassland plants and animals are largely unknown,” Litt wrote. 

Litt, who is originally from Wisconsin, joined MSU’s Department of Ecology in 2011, where she teaches courses in mammalogy, wildlife-habitat relationships and a capstone course in fish and wildlife.

Prior to joining MSU, she was an assistant professor at the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute in Kingsville, Texas. She earned her bachelor’s degree in zoology from the University of Wisconsin, her master’s degree in wildlife ecology and conservation from the University of Florida and her doctorate in wildlife and fisheries science with a minor in statistics from the University of Arizona.

Litt’s research has also been published in a number of journals and publications including Ecosphere, Conservation Biology, the Journal of Wildlife Management, Yellowstone Science and the Wildlife Society Bulletin.

Litt says she hopes this latest publication will provide land managers and researchers with the current state of knowledge regarding the effects of prescribed fire on diverse species.

“I also hope the review will provide perspectives on the information gaps and challenges to guide future research and monitoring,” she said. “The regional approach also allows for insights about the parallels and differences between ecosystems.”

Contact: Andrea Litt, andrea.litt@montana.edu or (406) 994-2332.