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Relationships among burn severity, forest canopy structure, and bat activity from spring burns in oak-hickory forests
The extent to which prescribed fires affect forest structure and habitats of vertebrate species is an important question for land managers tasked with balancing potentially conflicting objectives of vegetation and wildlife management. Many insectivorous bats forage for insect prey in forested habitats, serving as the primary predators of nocturnal forest insects, and are potentially affected by structural changes in forests resulting from prescribed fires. We compared forest-stand characteristics of temperate oak-hickory forests, as measured with airborne laser scanning (LiDAR), with categorical estimates of burn severity from prescribed fires as derived from Landsat data and field-based Composite Burn Indices, and used acoustic monitoring to quantify activity of insectivorous bats in association with varying degrees of burn severity (unburned habitat, low severity, and medium severity). Forest-stand characteristics showed greatest separation between low severity and medium severity classes, with gap index, i.e., open air space, increasing with degree of burn severity. Greater mid-story density, over-story density, and proportion of vegetation in the understory occurred in unburned habitat. Activity of bats did not differ with burn severity for high frequency (clutter-adapted/closed-space foragers) or low frequency (edge/open-space foragers) bats. Results indicate that differing degrees of burn severity from prescribed fires produced spatial variation in canopy structure within stands; however, bats demonstrated no shifts in activity levels to this variation in canopy structure, suggesting prescribed fire during the dormant season, used as a management practice targeting desired changes in vegetation, is compatible with sustaining foraging habitat of insectivorous bats.
WF16159 Accepted 10 August 2017
© CSIRO 2017