Time since fire influences macropod occurrence in a fire-prone coastal ecosystem

Date: 13, Nov, 2021
Author(s):   Chard, M., Foster, C.N., Lindenmayer, D.B., Cary, G.J., MacGregor, C.I. and Blanchard, W.
Publisher: Austral Ecology

Knowledge of animal responses to fire is fundamental to wildlife management in fire-prone ecosystems. Fire can influence the occurrence of large herbivores by altering the structure and composition of vegetation. However, how fire affects herbivore occurrence in many ecosystems is poorly understood. Large herbivores may be attracted to burnt areas due to higher foraging quality. Conversely, herbivores may avoid burnt areas due to heightened predation risk. We tested the influence of vegetation type and fire history variables on the occurrence of macropods at Booderee National Park in south-eastern Australia. We documented macropod occurrence at 107 long-term monitoring sites using spotlighting surveys conducted between 2003 and 2019. We modelled relationships between the occurrence of the eastern grey kangaroo (Macropus giganteus) and the swamp wallaby (Wallabia bicolor) with three fire history variables; time since fire, fire frequency and burn context (the proportion of the area surrounding each site that was recently burnt), as well as their interaction with vegetation type. We found both macropod species selected recently burnt sites, likely due to a higher abundance of preferred plants at these sites. Increasing fire frequency was associated with a reduced occurrence of the eastern grey kangaroo. The occurrence of both macropod species was significantly higher in forest sites, possibly reflecting higher foraging quality of grass and shrub species compared to woodland, heathland and shrubland sites. We suggest that if fire is used as a management tool, it is important to recognise potential feedbacks from increased foraging pressure from large herbivores. Future fire management will need to avoid burning areas of sensitive vegetation if local herbivores display pyric herbivory responses, and/or avoid small-scale burns, which may concentrate foraging pressure.