Wildlife and Terrestrial Ecosystems
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  • Wildlife and Terrestrial Ecosystems
  • Southwest Forest Science Complex
  • 2500 South Pine Knoll
  • Flagstaff, AZ 86001-6381
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Birds & Burns Network

Fire Effects on Populations and Habitats of Sensitive Species in Dry Mixed Conifer Forests

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The Rocky Mountain Research Station is leading the effort to examine fire effects on populations and habitats of wildlife in dry mixed conifer forests in eight states across the western United States, including locations on National Forests, National Parks, and state and private lands. Our goal is to understand the ecological consequences of wildland fire, bark beetle disturbance, and forest management for wildlife in dry mixed conifer forests.

The target wildlife species are cavity-nesting birds and songbirds (also small mammals at selected locations). Cavity-nesting birds are a focus of this research because many of them depend on fire-maintained habitats for their dispersal and movements, they are designated as Management Indicator Species (MIS) and Sensitive Species by state and federal agencies, and they are responsive to timber and fire management activities.

Objectives and Questions

Forest Restoration Objectives

  • Conduct effectiveness monitoring of forest restoration activities to quantify reductions in fuel and changes to wildlife habitat.
  • Evaluate effectiveness of silvicultural activities in meeting both forest restoration and wildlife conservation goals.
  • Estimate distribution and population trends of white-headed woodpecker throughout the Inland Northwest Region.
  • Develop silvicultural prescriptions for dry conifer forests that incorporate habitat suitability for woodpeckers.

Fire-related Objectives

  • Determine the most productive habitats for cavity-nesting birds among three fire conditions (fire exclusion, prescribed fire, and wildfire).
  • Develop design criteria for post-fire salvage logging that maintains habitat for MIS and sensitive species of birds.
  • Develop remote-sensing methods to predict bird distributions in different habitat conditions created by fire.

Beetle Outbreak Objectives

  • Examine changes in occupancy by avian communities in relation to beetle outbreaks.
  • Evaluate changes in woodpecker nest survival over the course of a mountain pine beetle outbreak.
  • Develop habitat suitability models for woodpeckers based on insect population trends, vegetation change and projected fire behavior after a mountain pine beetle outbreak.

Some questions that we are addressing include:

  • What are the sizes and composition of fuels after prescribed fire?
  • What are the population responses by birds to vegetation changes after prescribed fire?
  • Which fire conditions (exclusion, prescribed, and wildfire) provide source habitats for MIS and Sensitive Species of woodpeckers?
  • Can we use remote sensing before fires to predict cavity-nesting bird and snag distributions after fire?
  • Will selected species of noxious weeds increase after prescribed fire?

Design and Methods

We used a Before, After, Control, Impact (BACI) design with replication at 9 locations in 8 western states for the prescribed fire studies, which began in 2002. At each location, sampling units were 250-400 ha with at least 2 replicate units for each treatment and control and a minimum of 20 point count stations in each unit.

We conducted point count surveys to quantify population densities of songbirds; monitored nests of target species (woodpeckers, bluebirds, and nuthatches) to determine nesting densities, success, and productivity; and measured vegetation (fine fuels; ground, log, and overstory cover; densities of logs, shrubs, trees and snags) at nest and point count locations.

Point count and vegetation sampling were stratified by crown closure; nest surveys and monitoring were conducted throughout each unit. Point count, vegetation, and nest data were collected at least 2 years before prescribed fire treatments and at least 2 years after fire treatment.

Results from ongoing wildfire research that began in the 1990s are being used to compare habitat and bird populations with those monitored before and after prescribed fire treatments.

For Managers

  • Evaluate trade-offs of alternative fire management for wildlife
    • Results of our research identify the ecological trade-offs of alternative management activities for focal species of wildlife.
  • Identify conflicts & resolutions for Sensitive Species
    • The research helps to identify potential conflicts and resolutions in management for MIS and Sensitive Species of birds.
  • Critical for NEPA, Consultation, Forest Planning, etc.
    • The information generated is critical for conducting NEPA analyses, consultations with regulatory agencies, forest planning, appeals and litigation.
  • Science Briefs

For Participants

Progress Reports

White-headed Woodpecker Monitoring

Funding and Collaborators

Funding was provided primarily by the Joint Fire Sciences Program, the National Fire Plan, and the Rocky Mountain Research Station, with matching dollars contributed by the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program at individual units. Our primary collaborators are:

  • Forest Service Pacific Northwest Region
  • Pacific Northwest Research Station
  • The Nature Conservancy
  • Boise National Forest
  • Coconino National Forest
  • Fremont-Winema National Forest
  • Gila and Apache/Sitgreaves National Forest
  • Helena National Forest
  • Kaibab National Forest
  • Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest
  • Payette National Forest
  • San Juan National Forest
  • Sycan Marsh Preserve
  • and several universities

Selected Publications

Saab, V.A., Q. S. Latif, M. M. Rowland, T. N. Johnson, A. D. Chalfoun, S. W. Buskirk, J. E. Heyward, and M. A. Dresser. 2014. Ecological Consequences of Mountain Pine Beetle Outbreaks for Wildlife in Western North American Forests. Forest Science 60(2).

Hollenbeck Jeff P. Bate Lisa J. Saab Victoria A. Lehmkuhl John F. 2013. Snag distributions in relation to human access in ponderosa pine forests. Wildlife Society Bulletin. 37(2): 256-266.

Latif Quresh S. Saab Victoria A. Dudley Jonathan G. Hollenbeck Jeff P. 2013. Ensemble modeling to predict habitat suitability for a large-scale disturbance specialist. Ecology and Evolution. 3(13): 4348-4364.

Vierling, Kerri T., Victoria A. Saab and Bret W. Tobalske. 2013. Lewis's Woodpecker (Melanerpes lewis). The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology. doi:10.2173/bna.284.

Block William M. Saab Victoria A. Ruggiero Leonard. 2012. Putting science into action on Forest Service Lands [Chapter 5]. In: Sands, J. P.; DeMaso, S. J.; Schnupp, M. J.; Brennan, L. A., eds. Wildlife science: Connecting research with management. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press. p. 49-62.

Bond Monica L. Siegel Rodney B. Hutto Richard L. Saab Victoria A. Shunk Stephen A. 2012. A new forest fire paradigm: The need for high-severity fires. The Wildlife Professional. Winter 2012: 46-49.

Dudley Jonathan G. Saab Victoria A. Hollenbeck Jeffrey P. 2012. Foraging-habitat selection of Black-backed Woodpeckers in forest burns of southwestern Idaho. The Condor. 114(2): 348-357.

Towler Erin Saab Victoria A. Sojda Richard S. Dickinson Katherine Bruyere Cindy L. Newlon Karen R. 2012. A risk-based approach to evaluating wildlife demographics for management in a changing climate: A case study of the Lewis's Woodpecker. Environmental Management. 50: 1152-1163.

Mosher, B. A. 2011. Avian community response to a mountain pine beetle epidemic. M. S. thesis, Montana State University. 61 p.

Hollenbeck Jeff P. Saab Vicki Frenzel Richard W. 2011. Habitat suitability and nest survival of white-headed woodpeckers in unburned forests of Oregon. Journal of Wildlife Management. 75(5): 1061-1071.

Newlon Karen R. Saab Victoria A. 2011. Nest-site selection and nest survival of Lewis's woodpecker in aspen riparian woodlands. Condor. 113: 183-193.

Saab Vicki Russell Robin E. Rotella Jay Dudley Jonathan G. 2011. Modeling nest survival of cavity-nesting birds in relation to postfire salvage logging. Journal of Wildlife Management. 75(4): 794-804.

Russell, R.E., J. F. Lehmkuhl, S.T. Buckland, V.A. Saab. 2010. Short-term responses of red squirrels to prescribed burning in the Interior Pacific Northwest, USA2010. Journal of Wildlife Management 74:12-17.

Pierson Jennifer Allendorf Fred W. Saab Vicki Drapeau Pierre Schwartz Michael K. 2010. Do male and female black-backed woodpeckers respond differently to gaps in habitat?. Evolutionary Applications. 3: 263-278.

Wightman Catherine S. Saab Victoria A. Forristal Chris MellenMclean Kim Markus Amy. 2010. White-headed woodpecker nesting ecology after wildfire. Journal of Wildlife Management. 74(5): 1098-1106.

Pope Theresa L. Block William M. 2010. Effects of prescribed fire on winter assemblages of birds in ponderosa pine forests of northern Arizona. The Southwestern Naturalist. 55(1): 22-28.

Russell Robin E. Royle J. Andrew Saab Victoria A. Lehmkuhl John F. Block William M. Sauer John R. 2009. Modeling the effects of environmental disturbance on wildlife communities: avian responses to prescribed fire. Ecological Applications. 19(5): 1253-1263.

Saab Victoria A. Russell Robin E. Dudley Jonathan G. 2009. Nest-site selection by cavity-nesting birds in relation to postfire salvage logging. Forest Ecology and Management. 257(1):151-159.

Buckland Stephen T. Russell Robin E. Dickson Brett G. Saab Victoria A. Gorman Donal N. Block William M. 2009. Analysing designed experiments in distance sampling. Journal of Agricultural, Biological, and Environmental Statistics. 14: 432-442.

Russell Robin E. Saab Victoria A. Rotella Jay J. Dudley Jonathan G. 2009. Detection probabilities of woodpecker nests in mixed conifer forests in Oregon. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology. 121(1): 82-88.

Forristal Christopher David. 2009. Influence of postfire salvage logging on black-backed woodpecker nest-site selection and nest survival. Bozeman, MT: Montana State University. 93 p. Thesis.

Pope Theresa L. Block William M. Beier Paul. 2009. Prescribed fire effects on wintering, bark-foraging birds in northern Arizona. Journal of Wildlife Management. 73(5): 695-700.

Hutto Richard L. Conway Courtney J. Saab Victoria A. Walters Jeffrey R. 2008. What constitutes a natural fire regime? Insight from the ecology and distribution of coniferous forest birds in North America. Fire Ecology. 4(2): 115-132.

Fowler James F. Sieg Carolyn Hull Dickson Brett G. Saab Victoria. 2008. Exotic plant species diversity: Influence of roads and prescribed fire in Arizona ponderosa pine forests. Range Ecology and Management. 61: 284-293.

Dudley, J.G. and V.A. Saab. 2007. Home range size of Black-backed Woodpeckers in burned forests of southwestern Idaho. Western North American Naturalist 67(4), 593-600.

Russell Robin E. Saab Victoria A. Dudley Jonathan G. 2007. Habitat suitability models for cavity-nesting birds in a postfire landscape. The Journal of Wildlife Management. 71(8): 2600-2611.

Saab Victoria A. Russell Robin E. Dudley Jonathan G. 2007. Nest densities of cavity-nesting birds in relation to postfire salvage logging and time since wildfire. The Condor. 109: 97-108.

Saab Victoria Block William Russell Robin Lehmkuhl John Bate Lisa White Rachel. 2007. Birds and burns of the interior West: descriptions, habitats, and management in western forests. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-712. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. 23 p.

Pope Theresa L. 2006. Effects of prescribed fire on wintering, bark-foraging birds in northern Arizona. Flagstaff, AZ: Northern Arizona University. 70 p. Thesis.

Russell Robin E. Saab Victoria A. Dudley Jonathan G. Rotella Jay J. 2006. Snag longevity in relation to wildfire and postfire salvage logging. Forest Ecology and Management. 232: 179-187.

Saab Victoria Bate Lisa Lehmkuhl John Dickson Brett Story Scott Jentsch Stephanie Block William. 2006. Changes in downed wood and forest structure after prescribed fire in ponderosa pine forests. In: Andrews, Patricia L.; Butler, Bret W., comps. 2006. Fuels Management-How to Measure Success: Conference Proceedings. 28-30 March 2006; Portland, OR. Proceedings RMRS-P-41. Fort Collins, CO: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. p. 477-487.

Saab Victoria A. Kotliar Natasha B. Block William M. 2005. Relationships of fire ecology and avian communities in North America. In: Ralph, C. John; Rich, Terrell D., editors 2005. Bird Conservation Implementation and Integration in the Americas: Proceedings of the Third International Partners in Flight Conference. 2002 March 20-24; Asilomar, California, Volume 2 Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW-GTR-191. Albany, CA: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station: p. 1083-1086.

Saab Victoria A. Powell Hugh D. W. 2005. Fire and avian ecology in North America: Process influencing pattern. In: Saab, V.; Powell, H., eds. Fire and Avian Ecology in North America. Studies in Avian Biology. 30: 1-13.

Saab, V. A., H.D.W. Powell, N.B. Kotliar, and K.R. Newlon. 2005. Variation in fire regimes of the Rocky Mountains: implications for avian communities and fire management. Studies in Avian Biology 30:76-96.

Saab Victoria A. Dudley Jonathan Thompson William L. 2004. Factors influencing occupancy of nest cavities in recently burned forests. The Condor. 106(1): 20-36.

Abele Stephen C. Saab Victoria A. Garton Edward O. 2004. Lewis's Woodpecker (Melanerpes lewis): A technical conservation assessment. [Online]. USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Region. 50 p.

Kotliar, N.B., S. Hejl, R.L. Hutto, V. A. Saab, C.P. Melcher, and M.E. McFadzen. 2002. Effects of wildfire and post-fire salvage logging on avian communities in conifer-dominated forests of the Western United States. Studies in Avian Biology 25:49-64.

Saab Victoria A. Brannon Ree Dudley Jonathan Donohoo Larry Vanderzanden Dave Johnson Vicky Lachowski Henry. 2002. Selection of fire-created snags at two spatial scales by cavity-nesting birds. In: Laudenslayer, William F., Jr.; Shea, Patrick J.; Valentine, Bradley E.; Weatherspoon, C. Phillip; Lisle, Thomas E., tech. coords. Proceedings of the symposium on the ecology and management of dead wood in western forests, Reno, Nevada, November 2-4, 1999. Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW-GTR-181. Albany, CA : U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station. p. 835-848.

Saab, V. A., and K.T. Vierling. 2001. Reproductive success of Lewis's woodpecker in burned pine and cottonwood riparian forests. Condor 103:491-501.

Johnson, V., D. Vanderzanden, H. Lachowski, V. A. Saab, L. Donohoo. 2000. Using landsat satellite imagery to evaluate fire-created habitat for cavity-nesting birds. USDA, Forest Service, Remote Sensing Tips RSAC-12-TIP1, Remote Sensing Applications Center, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Johnson, V., V. A. Saab, D. Vanderzanden, H. Lachowski, R. Brannon, and C. Crist. 2000. Using landsat satellite imagery to evaluate fire-created habitat for cavity-nesting birds. In: Remote Sensing and Geospatial Technologies for the New Millennium; Proceedings of the Eighth Forest Service Remote Sensing Applications Conference, 10-14 April 2000, Albuquerque, New Mexico, editor Greer, J.D. American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing.

Dixon, R.D., and V. A. Saab. 2000. Black-backed Woodpecker (Picoides arcticus). In: The Birds of North America. No. 509. (Poole, A. and Gill, F. eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington D.C.

Shaw N. L. Saab V. A. Monsen S. B. Rich T. D. 1999. Bromus tectorum expansion and biodiversity loss on the Snake River Plain, southern Idaho, USA. In: Eldridge, David; Freudenberger, David, eds. People and rangelands: Building the future - Proceedings of the VI International Rangeland Congress; Townsville, Queensland, Australia; July 19-23, 1999. Aitkenvale, Queensland, Australia: International Rangeland Congress, Inc. p. 586-588.

Saab Victoria A. Dudley Jonathan G. 1998. Responses of cavity-nesting birds to stand-replacement fire and salvage logging in ponderosa pine/Douglas-fir forests of southwestern Idaho. Res. Pap. RMRS-RP-11. Ogden, UT: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. 17 p.

Saab, V. A. 1998. Effects of recreational activity and livestock grazing on habitat use by breeding birds in cottonwood forests along the South Fork Snake River. USDI, Bureau of Land Management, Technical Bulletin No. 98-17. BLM/ID/PT/004-1150.

Saab, V. A. 1997. Cavity-nesting bird responses to stand-replacement fire and postfire salvage logging. Blue Mountains Natural Resources Institute 7:8-9.


Contact Vicki Saab for questions or comments related to the Birds & Burns Network.


Montana State University

Research with Montana State University done in conjunction with collaborator, Jay Rotella, Ecology Department