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Impacts of fire on snowshoe hares in Glacier National Park, Montana, USA

Author(s): Ellen Cheng, Karen E. Hodges, Scott Mills
Year Published: 2015

Forest fires fundamentally shape the habitats available for wildlife. Current predictions for fire under a warming climate suggest larger and more severe fires may occur, thus challenging scientists and managers to understand and predict impacts of fire on focal species, especially species of management concern. Snowshoe hares (Lepus americanus Erxleben) are a common and important prey animal in boreal forests and are the primary prey for the US federally threatened Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis Kerr), so understanding hare dynamics in post-fire landscapes is critical for managing lynx. We collected habitat and fecal pellet data from 114 sites across three natural burn treatments (mature forest, 1988 Red Bench burn, and 1994 Adair and Howling burns) to evaluate impacts of fire and fire-habitat interactions on snowshoe hare in Glacier National Park, Montana, USA. We found that hare numbers were low throughout the park, with hares absent at 17% of surveyed sites and occurring at densities above 0.5 hares ha-1 (a commonly suggested threshold for supporting Canada lynx) at only 7% of sites. Hare densities were variable but 10 to 20 times higher in regenerating lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta Douglas ex Loudon) stands of 1988 Red Bench burn compared to lodgepole stands in other burn treatments. In stands dominated by other tree species, we found little difference in hare densities across burn treatments. Regardless of burn history or dominant canopy type, percent canopy cover was positively associated with hare relative abundance. Hare densities also increased with percent understory cover up to 80% cover, beyond which they began to decline. The regular occurrence of wildfires in Glacier National Park, with 2003 being a particularly large fire year (the largest since 1910), suggest that hare and lynx distribution and abundance within the park may shift substantially in the coming decades as these animals respond to changing spatiotemporal patterns of regenerating forest.

Citation: Cheng, Ellen; Hodges, Karen E.; Mills, L. Scott. 2015. Impacts of fire on snowshoe hares in Glacier National Park, Montana, USA. Fire Ecology. 11(2): 119-136
Topic(s): Fire Effects, Ecological - Second Order, Wildlife, Fire & Wildlife, Mammals, Rabbits, hares, pikas
Ecosystem(s): Subalpine wet spruce-fir forest, Subalpine dry spruce-fir forest, Montane wet mixed-conifer forest, Montane dry mixed-conifer forest
Document Type: Book or Chapter or Journal Article
NRFSN number: 13460
FRAMES RCS number: 20606
Record updated: Mar 13, 2018