Managing fire mosaics for small mammal conservation: a landscape perspective.
Fire is a major driver of ecosystem structure and function worldwide. It is also widely used as a management tool to achieve conservation goals. A common objective is the maintenance of 'fire mosaics' comprising spatially heterogeneous patches of differing fire history. However, it is unclear what properties of fire mosaics most enhance conservation efforts. Here we focus on the spatial and temporal properties of fire-prone landscapes that influence the distribution of small mammals. We surveyed small mammals in 28 landscapes (each 12.6 km2) representing a range of fire histories in the Murray Mallee region (104 000 km2) of semi-arid Australia. Generalised linear mixed models were used to examine the influence of five landscape properties on the capture rate of individual species and the species richness of native small mammals. We investigated the influence of the proportional extent of fire age-classes, the diversity of fire age-classes, the extent of the dominant vegetation type, rainfall history and biogeographic context. Three of four study species were associated with the spatial extent of fire age-classes. Older vegetation was found to provide important habitat for native small mammals. Overall, however, rainfall history and biogeographic context were dominant influences: for example, the species richness of native mammals was positively associated with above-average rainfall. There was little evidence that the diversity of fire age-classes influenced either the capture rate of individual species or species richness. Synthesis and applications. In fire-prone environments, habitat availability can change markedly over short time-scales. Sufficient habitat at a suitable seral stage within the landscape is a key requirement for species conservation. In mallee ecosystems, the retention of older vegetation is recommended to create more desirable fire mosaics for native small mammals. In addition to such spatial properties of mosaics that are amenable to manipulation, an understanding of how ecological processes affect the biota (such as variation in rainfall-driven productivity) is also essential for informed conservation management.