Cattle grazing does not reduce fire severity in eucalypt forests and woodlands of the Australian Alps

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Abstract

Large grazing herbivores can change fire regimes by altering fuel types and abundance, particularly in savanna biomes where the dominant fuel is grass. The use of herbivores as a fire management tool is receiving increasing consideration globally, but this intervention has a limited evidence-base and is controversial because of potential deleterious ecological effects. These issues are well illustrated by the political and scientific debate about the capacity of cattle grazing to reduce fire hazard in the Victorian Alps of Australia; there have been remarkably few scientific studies to illuminate this issue. Here we use remote sensing and geographic information system analysis to determine the effect of active grazing licences on fire severity (crown scorch) in eucalypt forests and woodlands following large fires in the Alps during the summers of 2002/2003 and 2006/2007. Our statistical analyses, which controlled for spatial autocorrelation, found crown scorch was strongly related to vegetation type but there was no evidence that cattle grazing reduced fire severity. There was some evidence that grazing could increase fire severity by possibly changing fuel arrays. Such landscape analyses are a critical approach given that large-scale grazing × fire trials are prohibitively expensive and impractical to conduct.

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