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Burned forest characterization at single-tree level with airborne laser scanning for assessing wildlife habitat

Author(s): Angeles Casas, Mariano Garcia, Rodney B. Siegel, Alexander Koltunov, Carlos Ramirez, Susan L. Ustin
Year Published: 2016
Description:

Abundance, size, and spatial distribution of standing dead trees (snags), are key indicators of forest biodiversity and ecosystem health. These metrics represent critical habitat components for various wildlife species of conservation concern, including the Black-backed Woodpecker (Picoides arcticus), which is strongly associated with recently burned conifer forest. We assessed the potential of Airborne Laser Scanning (ALS) to detect and characterize conifer snags and identify Black-backed Woodpecker habitat using previously derived empirical thresholds of conifer snag basal area. Over the footprint of the Rim Fire, a megafire that extended (~ 104,000 ha) through a heterogeneous mosaic of conifer forests, oak woodlands, and meadows in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, we identified conifer snags and estimated their basal area from single-tree ALS-derived metrics using Gaussian processes in four major steps. First, individual trees were mapped using the Watershed Segmentation algorithm, resulting in 87% detection of trees with stem diameter larger than 30 cm. Second, the snag/live classification model identified snags with an overall accuracy of 91.8%, using the coefficient of variation of height and intensity together with maximum intensity and fractional cover as the most relevant metrics. Third, the conifer/hardwood snag classification model utilizing the maximum height, median height, minimum intensity, and area metrics separated snag forest types with an overall accuracy of 84.8%. Finally, a Gaussian process regression model reliably estimated conifer snag stem diameter (R2 = 0.81) using height and crown area, thus significantly outperforming regionally calibrated conifer-specific allometric equations. As a result, ~ 80% of the snag basal area have been mapped. Optimal and potential habitat for Black-backed Woodpecker comprise 53.7 km2 and 58.4 km2, respectively, representing 5.1 and 5.6% of the footprint of the Rim Fire. Our study illustrates the utility of high-density ALS data for characterizing recently burned forests, which, in conjunction with information about the habitat needs of particular snag-dependent wildlife species, can be used to assess habitat characteristics, and thus contribute greatly to forest management and biodiversity conservation.

Citation: Casas, Ángeles; García, Mariano; Siegel, Rodney B.; Koltunov, Alexander; Ramírez, Carlos; Ustin, Susan L. 2016. Burned forest characterization at single-tree level with airborne laser scanning for assessing wildlife habitat. Remote Sensing of Environment. 175: 231-241.
Topic(s): Fire Effects, Ecological - Second Order, Vegetation, Wildlife, Fire & Wildlife, Birds, Black-backed woodpecker, Habitat Assessment
Ecosystem(s): Montane dry mixed-conifer forest, Ponderosa pine woodland/savanna, Lower montane/foothills/valley grassland
Document Type: Book or Chapter or Journal Article
NRFSN number: 14180
FRAMES RCS number: 21836
Record updated: Mar 13, 2018