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Amphibian Responses to Wildfire in the Western United States: Emerging Patterns from Short-Term Studies

Abstract

The increased frequency and severity of large wildfires in the western United States is an important ecological and management issue with direct relevance to amphibian conservation. Although the knowledge of fire effects on amphibians in the region is still limited relative to most other vertebrate species, we reviewed the current literature to determine if there are evident patterns that might be informative for conservation or management strategies. Of the seven studies that compared pre- and post-wildfire data on a variety of metrics, ranging from amphibian occupancy to body condition, two reported positive responses and five detected negative responses by at least one species. Another seven studies used a retrospective approach to compare effects of wildfire on populations: two studies reported positive effects, three reported negative effects from wildfire, and two reported no effects. All four studies that included plethodontid salamanders reported negative effects on populations or individuals; these effects were greater in forests where fire had been suppressed and in areas that burned with high severity. Species that breed in streams are also vulnerable to post-wildfire changes in habitat, especially in the Southwest. Wildfire is also important for maintaining suitable habitat for diverse amphibian communities, although those results may not be evident immediately after an area burns. We expect that wildfire will extirpate few healthy amphibian populations, but it is still unclear how populations will respond to wildfire in the context of land management (including pre- and post-fire timber harvest) and fragmentation. Wildfire may also increase the risk of decline or extirpation for small, isolated, or stressed (e.g., from drought or disease) populations. Improved understanding of how these effects vary according to changes in fire frequency and severity are critical to form more effective conservation strategies for amphibians in the western United States.

Introduction

The widespread decline of amphibians has been one of the most visible conservation issues during the past two decades (Stuart et al. 2004). At the same time, the increase in large wildfires in western North America, where wildfire severity is expected to increase further under future climate conditions (Westerling et al. 2006, Morgan et al. 2008), has emerged as an important issue with direct relevance to amphibian conservation. Some amphibian species will decline after wildfires cause habitat changes, whereas other species will thrive in the early successional or patchy environments that often result. How amphibians respond to wildfire likely depends on their evolutionary history with fire, as well as the life history characteristics that influence their resistance and resilience.

The contemporary distribution and population trends of amphibians are, in part, a reflection of dynamic landscapes shaped by a range of disturbances and ecological processes, including beaver activity, debris flows, drought, and wildfire (Petranka et al. 2004, Means 2006, Swanson et al. 2011). Wildfire is an important agent in structuring diverse amphibian communities in fire-adapted ecosystems, like those in the southeastern US where frequent (e.g., 1 yr to 4 yr), low-severity fire is critical for maintaining suitable conditions for many species (Russell et al. 1999, Means 2006). Our definition considers severity to represent loss of biomass that results from fire (Keeley 2009). Although wildfire has likely served a similar role in structuring amphibian communities in some parts of the western United States (hereafter, the West), there are few studies from this region, and it is uncertain how broadly studies from other ecosystems apply because of differences in fire regimes and species assemblages. Also, interactions between land management and climate change may be resulting in fire characteristics different from those that populations have experienced in recent centuries, including less frequent but more severe wildfire in dry forests (e.g., ponderosa pine [Pinus ponderosa C. Lawson] in the southwestern US) or more frequent wildfire in forests that rarely burned historically (e.g., cold mesic forests; Agee 1993, DeBano et al. 1998).

More than half of the native anuran species (frogs and toads) in the West have suffered serious declines (Bradford 2005). Salamanders are thought to have experienced fewer declines than anurans, but the status of several species is uncertain because of limited data (Bradford 2005). Recent wildfire activity in the West has overlapped a large portion of the range of many amphibian species, making an improved understanding of the effects of wildfire on amphibian populations important for prioritizing conservation efforts. For example, more than 25 % of the estimated range for the federally endangered mountain yellow-legged frog (Rana muscosa Camp., sensu stricto) in southern California has burned since 1987 (Figure 1). Approximately 24 % of the range of the Rocky Mountain tailed frog (Ascaphus montanus Mittleman and Myers) has burned during the same period (Figure 1).

Figure 1
figure1

Overlap of areas burned by wildfire in the western United States since 1987 (in black) with the distribution of select amphibian species (in gray) that represent a range of the life-history strategies and fire regimes. Species distributions were mapped using a combination of Amphibian Atlas and Gap Analysis data. Wildfire data were compiled from several sources (unpublished data, USGS Snake River Field Station).

Pilliod et al. (2003) reviewed the effects of fire on North American amphibians and found only two studies conducted west of the Great Plains. Although knowledge of wildfire effects on amphibians is still limited compared to studies on other vertebrates, much more research has been completed in the West since 2003. We provide an updated review of the effects of wildfire on amphibians and their habitats in the West, where recent and projected fire activity could have important implications for populations. We discuss separately the documented or expected responses of amphibians to wildfire according to their life history strategies and the habitats they occupy. We also focus primarily on amphibian responses to wildfires rather than prescribed fires because the two types of fire manifest different change (e.g., Arkle and Pilliod 2010). Prescribed fires are usually set during cool seasons, burn with lower intensities than wildfires that occur during summer droughts, and are often used for management of fuels rather than achieving ecological objectives (Stone et al. 2010). Finally, we emphasize research gaps that should be addressed to help identify and form effective conservation strategies.

Effects of Wildfire on Amphibian Habitats

Unless a species has an extremely limited distribution or is isolated, we expect the immediate effects of wildfire such as mortality of some individuals or failed reproduction will be a small threat to most healthy populations. Instead, most declines probably result from sub-lethal effects imposed by persistent habitat change or synergistic effects with other stressors like drought. Because many amphibian species have discrete terrestrial and aquatic phases, they experience changes in both aquatic and terrestrial environments. This biphasic life style may expose some species to stressors in two environments, but it can also help insulate populations from catastrophic losses in a particular environment (e.g., aquatic larvae die but terrestrial adults survive).

Wetland Habitats

Of the three habitats frequented by amphibians (wetland, stream, terrestrial), we expect wetland environments would experience the smallest fire-related changes and may be the most likely to experience advantageous changes for larvae. We use the term “wetland” to include all non-flowing waters, including vernal pools, ponds, and lakes. We suspect amphibian populations in large wetlands and lakes will be less susceptible than populations in smaller water bodies simply because large sites tend to have longer hydroperiods and their basins are less likely to burn (Gresswell 1999). Increased productivity in lakes that sometimes results after fire could also improve foraging opportunities for grazing tadpoles and predatory salamanders (Scrimgeour et al. 2001, Charette and Prepas 2003).

In contrast, the high perimeter-to-surface ratio of small wetlands strengthens their connection with the surrounding terrestrial environment, likely increasing post-fire changes in habitat relative to large water bodies (Batzer et al. 2000, Palik et al. 2001). Small wetlands cover <5 % of the landscape in the West (Dahl 1990), yet they are critical habitats for many species and are the dominant breeding habitat for resident amphibians. In deciduous and mixed conifer-deciduous forests in other regions of the US, periodic events that open the canopy strongly influence amphibian communities through changes in the light regime, temperature, and hydroperiod of wetlands (Werner and Glennemeier 1999, Halverson et al. 2003). Frequent, low-severity wildfires in the southeastern US historically served a similar role in retarding encroachment of woody vegetation in wetlands and were critical for maintaining suitable habitat for several amphibian species (Russell et al. 1999, Means 2006).

There has been less research on the importance of wildfire to wetlands in the West. Suppression of wildfires in northern California has been associated with encroachment of trees into open meadow habitats and subsequent loss of amphibian breeding sites (Fellers and Drost 1993). Most larvae of wetland-breeding amphibians require sustained hydroperiods of warm water to complete development. Woody vegetation tends to either shorten hydroperiods or reduce water temperatures through evapotranspiration and shading. Contrary to this supposition, water temperatures on the north shoreline (where amphibians typically deposit eggs) of burned and unburned temporary wetlands in Glacier National Park, Montana, were not significantly different in the first year after a mixed-severity wildfire (Hossack and Corn 2008). However, all of the wetlands had fairly open canopies before the fire and we suspect that temperatures would have increased had they been heavily shaded before the fire.

Stream Habitats

Streams are critical to much of the West’s diversity and may experience changes in structure and function after wildfire (Corn et al. 2003, Dunham et al. 2007). In the Southwest, debris flows are common after severe wildfires consume most surface vegetation, and can greatly reduce breeding and rearing habitat for local amphibians. Where pools do not fill completely with sediments, they may hold less water and dry before larvae can metamorphose (Sredl and Wallace 2000).

Population connectivity is often critical for recovery of stream species. There are several examples of fishes getting extirpated from stream reaches after wildfire, but in most cases they recolonize within one or two years, and populations recover to pre-fire levels within several years (Dunham et al. 2003). One important difference between stream fishes and amphibians is that recovery of many amphibians is expected to occur slowly. For example, experimental removal of Pacific giant salamanders (Dicamptodon tenebrosus Baird and Girard) from stream reaches 25 m to 40 m long showed that recolonization from adjacent areas within streams could take up to 42 months (Ferguson 2000). Recent evidence also indicates that the amount of terrestrial versus aquatic dispersal could strongly influence connectivity and recolonization. Giant salamanders that are more closely tied to their streams (Cope’s giant salamander [Dicamptodon copei Nussbaum], Idaho giant salamander [Dicamptodon aterrimus Cope]) experience less gene flow among populations than the more terrestrial Pacific giant salamander (Steele et al. 2009, Mullen et al. 2010). Tailed frogs and torrent salamanders are likely weaker dispersers than Pacific giant salamanders and could take longer to recolonize habitats, or may experience reduced gene flow if wildfire makes the terrestrial environment less hospitable (Nijhuis and Kaplan 1998, Miller et al. 2006, Spear and Storfer 2008).

Southwestern anurans that breed in warm streams are more vagile than amphibians that occupy cold streams in the Northwest, but the stream habitats in the Southwest often occur in highly fragmented landscapes or contain introduced predators that may inhibit dispersal and recolonization (Riley et al. 2005, Wallace et al. 2010). Perhaps paradoxically, greater vagility may increase short-term risk of species to habitat loss and fragmentation, because dispersers can settle or die in unsuitable habitats (Funk et al. 2005, Fahrig 2007).

Terrestrial Habitats

Most aquatic-breeding amphibians spend the majority of their lives in terrestrial or riparian habitats. Thus, even for aquatic-breeding species, the terrestrial environment can be a stronger driver of population dynamics than the aquatic environment (Biek et al. 2002, Trenham and Shaffer 2005), and terrestrial habitat characteristics are often better predictors of the composition and abundance of larval amphibian communities (Van Buskirk 2005, Piha et al. 2007). The importance of terrestrial habitat in structuring aquatic communities reflects the strong connection between terrestrial and aquatic environments, but also emphasizes the importance of the terrestrial environment on dispersal and survival.

Changes to temperature and moisture regimes are likely to be two of the biggest challenges facing amphibians after wildfire (Hossack et al. 2009, Semlitsch et al. 2009). Wildfire increases recruitment of coarse wood to the forest floor (although oftentimes slowly), which can help offset the greater soil temperatures and risk of evaporative water loss that result from reduced canopy (Lindenmayer and Noss 2006). However, if wildfire occurs in early seral stages or forests that have been logged, there may be little large wood on the forest floor to provide refugia for animals (Major 2005). Variation in burn severity within the fire perimeter may also be critical for providing refugia and sources of future colonists to the surrounding habitats. These legacy patches could be especially important for species like plethodontid salamanders that have limited colonization abilities, but can persist in small remnants of intact forest (Gibbs 1998, Noël et al. 2007).

Effects of Wildfire on Amphibian Populations

Amphibians have a broader range of life-history strategies than any other vertebrate class (Duellman and Treub 1986), and understanding and accounting for these strategies is critical for predicting responses to wildfire. Vulnerability of a species to direct (mortality) and indirect (habitat change) effects of wildfire will depend largely upon how individuals use and perceive their environment and how their habitats change after fire. Most western amphibians can be placed into three general groups based on breeding habitats and reproductive characteristics: 1) species that breed in standing water or slow, warm streams; 2) species in the Northwest and northern Rocky Mountains that breed in small, cold streams; and 3) lungless salamanders (family Plethod-ontidae) that are not reliant upon water for breeding. Most species in these last two categories have delayed maturity, are long lived, and have low fecundity relative to most species that breed in warm waters, and thus may take longer to respond to or recover after wildfire. We used these life-history characteristics and associated breeding habitats to frame expected effects of wildfire on amphibian populations.

Wetland and Warm Stream Breeders

Most studies of effects of wildfire on wetland amphibians in the West have occurred in the northern Rocky Mountains, the region that has experienced the largest increase in recent fire activity (Westerling et al. 2006). Many of the studies in this region have been in Glacier National Park, Montana, where fires burned areas that were part of a long-term amphibian monitoring program. After a 2001 mixed-severity fire burned forest surrounding 42 previously surveyed wetlands, there was no change in occupancy of breeding sites by the long-toed salamander (Ambystoma macrodactylum Baird) or Columbia spotted frog (Rana luteiventris Thompson), whereas western toads (Anaxyrus boreas Baird and Girard) colonized several wetlands they did not use for breeding before the fire (Table 1; Hossack and Corn 2007). Western toads also colonized >20 previously vacant wetlands after another stand-replacement fire in Glacier National Park in 2003 (Hossack and Corn 2007).

Table 1 Summary of effects of wildfire on amphibian populations and their habitats in the western United States. Studies are sorted by species, with the direction of the response (if apparent) indicated. Timeline refers to number of years before and after the wildfire occurred. The superscripted letter references the study, listed below the table.

In this same area of Glacier that was colonized by toads after fire, a radio telemetry study showed that adult western toads used severely burned areas more than moderately burned forest (there was little unburned forest in the area; Guscio et al. 2008). In contrast, adult western toads did not use burned habitats more than expected in an area of northeast Oregon that included three fires that burned 6 yr to 10 yr prior, but they did use open habitats more than expected (Bull 2006). Different responses between study areas may be related to the age of the fires or because the fires in Oregon burned relatively open subalpine forests that included extensive meadows, whereas the fires in Glacier National Park occurred in dense forest. Consistent with the positive responses to fire in Glacier National Park, western toad populations near areas burned by the 1988 fires in Yellowstone National Park had greater genetic connectivity than populations farther from burned areas (Murphy et al. 2010). These data suggest that landscape-level factors such as wildfire may facilitate dispersal and connectivity.

The threat of wildfire to amphibian populations is probably greater in the Southwest than other regions of the West. The Southwest is also the region with the highest proportion of imperiled species (Bradford 2005). Persistent drought, large wildfires, and widespread alteration of water bodies (including the presence of non-native amphibians and fishes), combined with an already challenging landscape, magnify the threats to these species (Clarkson and Rorabaugh 1989, DeBano et al. 1998, Sredl and Wallace 2000, Olden and Poff 2005). Comparison of pre- and post-fire data after two large wildfires in southern California revealed that the western toad was detected in fewer plots (using drift fence arrays) in chaparral habitats after they burned, but the capture rate did not change across the study area and toads remained the most common amphibian (Rochester et al. 2010). The distribution and capture rate of the Pacific treefrog (Pseudacris regilla Baird and Girard) in terrestrial plots was not affected by the wildfires in either chaparral or coastal sage scrub habitats. Captures of tree-frogs in stream-side habitats, which may be more relevant to population dynamics, were insufficient to evaluate effects of the wildfires (Rochester et al. 2010).

Landslides and other sedimentation events are common after intense wildfires in the Southwest, often altering stream channels and filling breeding habitats. In Arizona, the lowland leopard frog (Lithobates yavapaiensis Platz and Frost) has suffered widespread declines and often breeds in bedrock pools called tinajas, which are the only breeding habitats that last through the winter in some areas (Clarkson and Rorabaugh 1989, Parker 2006). Many of these pools filled with coarse sediments following several large wildfires since 1989, and frogs remain rare in areas most affected by large sedimentation events (Parker 2006). Post-wildfire landslides and debris flows in southern California have reduced breeding habitat of many stream-associated species and may have extirpated one of the largest remaining populations of the federally endangered mountain yellow-legged frog (Backlin et al. 2004). Recent wildfires have burned approximately 25 % of the range of this endangered species in southern California, likely increasing the risk of extinction of some isolated populations (Figure 1). Similar changes to streams following other wildfires in southern California led to reduced numbers of egg masses of the California newt (Taricha torosa Rathke) (Gamradt and Kats 1997), but improved breeding habitat of the federally endangered arroyo toad (Anaxyrus californicus Camp) (Mendelsohn et al. 2005). These different responses illustrate the often species- and context-specific responses by amphibians to wildfire.

Cold Stream Breeders

The Pacific Northwest hosts three endemic families of amphibians (Ascaphidae, Dicamptodontidae, Rhyacotritonidae) that are restricted to or reach peak abundances in small, cold streams (Corn et al. 2003). There is still little published research on the effects of wildfire on these species, in part because some species (e.g., torrent salamanders of the family Rhyacotritonidae) occupy habitats that rarely burn. All research on effects of wildfire on stream amphibians in the Pacific Northwest has focused on tailed frogs (Ascaphus spp.), especially in the Rocky Mountains, where >20 % of the range of the Rocky Mountain tailed frog (Ascaphus montanus Mittleman and Myers) has burned since 1987 (Figure 1). Tailed frogs reside primarily in cold headwater streams, have long larval periods that can exceed 3 years, and often decline in numbers after disturbances that increase sedimentation or water temperature (Corn et al. 2003). Therefore, tailed frogs are expected to be sensitive to wildfire-induced changes to habitat (Pilliod et al. 2003). Notably, Noble and Putnam (1931) speculated 80 years ago that wildfire resulted in the local extirpation of coastal tailed frogs (Ascaphus truei Stejneger) in the Olympic Mountains of Washington.

Research to date does not indicate that wildfire is likely to extirpate tailed frog populations, although declines may occur. After a 2003 wildfire in Glacier National Park, comparison of one year of pre-fire data and two years of post-fire data on Rocky Mountain tailed frogs showed that larvae in burned streams were less abundant and were dominated by older age classes compared to larvae in unburned streams (Hossack et al. 2006). However, Dunham et al. (2007) did not find evidence that significant changes to channel structure after wildfire affected the distribution or abundance of Rocky Mountain tailed frog larvae in 6 streams that were sampled 9 yr to 11 yr after burning, suggesting that this species may be more resistant or resilient to wildfire than thought.

Terrestrial Breeders

Plethodontid salamanders are the most species-rich family of amphibians in the West. These lungless salamanders are associated primarily with mature forest and moist talus slopes or stream sides, where they lay terrestrial eggs that develop directly (no aquatic stage). Direct development from terrestrial eggs has evolved independently in several amphibian families and is thought to be an adaptation to predictable environments (Duellman and Trueb 1988). Species with low vagility and restricted microclimate associations like plethodontid salamanders are often expected to be the most sensitive to disturbance because they have limited capacity for population growth and recolonization of vacant habitats (Russell et al. 1999, Pilliod et al. 2003). For example, plethodontids were the slowest group of amphibians to recover after the eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington (Crisafulli et al. 2005). Some plethodontids occupy habitats that are unlikely to burn, such as talus slopes. The subterranean habits of most salamanders likely also buffer them from the direct effects of wildfire, especially because most salamanders probably retreat underground during summer drought, when wildfires are more likely to occur. However, these habits will also make it more difficult to detect population-level changes in plethodontids, because only a small fraction of the population may be available to sample at any given time (Chelgren et al. 2011).

Fire severity or pre-fire habitat conditions may be more important for predicting effects on terrestrial salamanders than for any other group of western amphibians. Detection of the garden slender salamander (Batrachoceps major Camp) and the ensatina (Ensatina escholtzii Gray) in drift fence arrays declined after intense wildfires in southern California (Rochester et al. 2010). These declines were most significant in chaparral forests, where little soil litter remained after the fires. After a 2009 ha wildfire burned in an ancient forest in western Oregon, Chelgren et al. (2011) found only weak support for a reduction in surface occupancy by five species of plethodontid salamanders in burned plots (0.16 ha) compared to unburned plots. In this study, the large volume of downed wood in the mature forest may have offered sufficient post-fire habitat to reduce the effects of the wildfire. Results from a prescribed fire in the Sierra Nevada in California support the hypothesized link between burn severity and effects on salamanders. Capture rates of the Sierra Nevada ensatina (Ensatina eschscholtzi platensis Jimenez de la Espada) and gregarious slender salamander (Batrachoseps gregarius Jockusch, Wake, and Yanev) were not affected by spring burning, probably because patches of deep litter remained after the fire and overstory canopy closure was unaffected (Bagne and Purcell 2009).

We expect the threat of wildfire to amphibians could be especially serious in fire-suppressed forests that burn with greater intensity than they did historically, because resident species are not adapted to a high-severity fire regime. In recently burned, fire-suppressed Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii [Mirb.] Franco)-tanoak (Lithocarpus densiflorus [Hook. and Arn.] Rehder) forests in northern California, Del Norte salamanders (Plethodon elongates Van Denburgh) were detected more frequently in stands that burned with low or moderate severity, and there were large amounts of downed wood, compared with lower detection rates in severely burned stands that retained less woody debris (Major 2005). After a stand-replacement wildfire burned a fire-suppressed landscape in New Mexico that historically burned with low- or mixed-severity fires, microhabitat temperatures in severely burned habitats consistently exceeded preferred temperatures (and occasionally the critical thermal maximum) of the Jemez Mountains salamander (Plethodon neomexicanus Stebbins and Riemer) (Cummer and Painter 2007; Figure 1). A comparison of pre- and post-wildfire data revealed no difference in naïve capture rates of surface-active salamanders, but the mean size of salamanders in the burned area decreased during the 4 years after the fire. This shift in size could have several explanations, including reduced surface activity by larger salamanders, reduced growth rates, or increased mortality of adults (Cummer and Painter 2007). Similar differences in body size or body condition of amphibians have been documented in comparisons of amphibians from harvested and unharvested forest and may be indicative of a gradual decline in population size that is difficult to detect (Karraker and Welsh 2006, Neckel-Oliveira and Gascon 2006).

Summary and Recommendations

Seven studies have compared pre- and post-wildfire data on a variety of metrics ranging from amphibian occupancy to demographic patterns. Two of these studies detected positive changes and five detected negative changes to population- or individual-level data on at least one species (Table 1). Of the seven studies that used a retrospective approach to investigate effects of wildfire on amphibians, two reported positive effects, two did not find any effects, and three reported negative effects from wildfire. Across all studies, there is no clear pattern to the effects that were documented and time-since-fire, in part because there are not enough studies for most species. However, the positive responses after wildfire were from the western toad and the arroyo toad, which is consistent with the affinity of some toad species for disturbed habitats (Hossack et al. 2007, Warren and Büttner 2008). Furthermore, all four studies that included plethodontid salamanders reported negative effects on populations or individuals (Table 1), which supports our prediction that these species would be the most sensitive to changes in habitat affected by wildfire.

Importantly, there are still few published studies on the effects of wildfire on amphibians in the West, and most studies (including our own) have been poorly replicated, included only a few sites, and have been short-term. Studies we reviewed covered only 14 species, and publication bias (i.e., not reporting cases where no changes were found) could have important implications for our perception of the effects of wildfire on amphibians. We emphasize three areas that require further research to clarify the threat of wildfire to amphibian populations. These topics are not mutually exclusive, and include 1) synergisms with land management and effects of fragmentation like timber harvest and roads; 2) effects of fire frequency and severity, which may be especially relevant in landscapes where the fire regime has been altered; and 3) more robust or longer-term estimates of population responses.

There is a large body of literature describing the often negative effects of timber harvest or fragmentation by forest roads on amphibian populations and habitats (e.g., Marsh and Beckman 2004, Karraker and Welsh 2006, Semlitsch et al. 2009), but to our knowledge, no studies have explicitly measured the combined effects of wildfire and timber harvest. Research on synergies between wildfire and disturbances will be especially important in areas that have been harvested after wildfire because characteristics of forests that have been salvaged logged (e.g., reduced recruitment of large wood, increased soil heating; Lindenmayer and Noss 2006) suggest that the combined effect of wildfire and harvest could be more harmful to forest amphibians than either factor alone. Negative interactive effects of wildfire and timber harvest or fragmentation may be more likely for isolated populations, where there are greater physiological costs of dispersal and reduced likelihood of rescue from neighboring populations.

A greater understanding of the effects of wildfire frequency and severity on populations will also be important for developing effective management strategies, especially in fire-suppressed forests that may burn more intensely than they did historically. Based on our summary, more severe wildfires seem to increase the likelihood of harmful changes to habitats or decreases in populations, especially for stream habitats and plethodontid salamanders (Backlin et al. 2004, Major 2005, Cummer and Painter 2007). Importantly, however, fire severity usually has not been quantified using a standard method like the Normalized Burn Ratio (Key and Benson 2005) in the studies that we reviewed, which limits our ability to make general comparisons across studies. Changes in the frequency and intensity of wildfire are particularly important in the Southwest, especially in areas where invasive plants might further alter the historical wildfire regime (Brooks et al. 2004).

Last, we need population estimates or other adjusted estimates to form reliable conclusions about both the short- and long-term effects of wildfire. For example, differences in apparent abundance between burned and un-burned habitats can result from different detection probabilities between areas. In the Chelgren et al. (2011) study, which compared occupancy of five species of plethodontid salamanders in burned and unburned forest, they detected more salamanders per unit effort in burned plots because there was less cover for salamanders to hide under than in unburned plots. After adjusting for the lower detection rates in unburned plots, they found weak evidence of a negative effect of fire on occupancy of salamanders. Similarly, Hossack et al. (2007) found that detection probabilities for Columbia spotted frogs increased during the course of their study. Without adjusting for these differences, they would have incorrectly reported a change in occupancy after the wildfire, when in fact there was no change. These studies underscore the need for reliable estimates to detect changes after wildfire. Long-term studies contrasting population and community dynamics in burned and unburned areas are also critical for measuring the effects of wildfires on amphibians in contrasting habitats or management scenarios because fire-related declines may not be evident for several generations (Findlay and Bourdages 2000, Metzger et al. 2009).

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Acknowledgments

Comments by B. Rieman, S. Corn, M. Sredl, W. Lowe, two anonymous reviewers, and the editor improved the manuscript. J. Welty helped with Figure 1. This work was supported by the USGS Amphibian Research and Monitoring Initiative.

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Hossack, B.R., Pilliod, D.S. Amphibian Responses to Wildfire in the Western United States: Emerging Patterns from Short-Term Studies. fire ecol 7, 129–144 (2011). https://doi.org/10.4996/fireecology.0702129

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Keywords

  • amphibian
  • conservation
  • decline
  • fire effects
  • forest management
  • fragmentation
  • life history strategies
  • population
  • wildfire