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Megafires: an emerging threat to old-forest species

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Abstract

Increasingly frequent “megafires” in North America's dry forests have prompted proposals to restore historical fire regimes and ecosystem resilience. Restoration efforts that reduce tree densities (eg via logging) could have collateral impacts on declining old-forest species, but whether these risks outweigh the potential effects of large, severe fires remains uncertain. We demonstrate the effects of a 2014 California megafire on an iconic old-forest species, the spotted owl (Strix occidentalis). The probability of owl site extirpation was seven times higher after the fire (0.88) than before the fire (0.12) at severely burned sites, contributing to the greatest annual population decline observed during our 23-year study. The fire also rendered large areas of forest unsuitable for owl foraging one year post-fire. Our study suggests that megafires pose a threat to old-forest species, and we conclude that restoring historical fire regimes could benefit both old-forest species and the dry forest ecosystems they inhabit in this era of climate change.

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