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How did the Rodeo-Chedeski fire impact the mule deer population?
Mule deer buckBackground:
The Rodeo-Chedeski fire is the largest fire recorded in Arizona, burning over 468,000 acres of forest habitat in less than one-month in June 2002. Effects of a catastrophic fire concern biologists because they can be detrimental to the habitat and its inhabitants. Post fire effects can be even more severe when they impact already declining populations, but there are also circumstances where fires can help.

Western US mule deer populations have declined significantly over the past 20 years with several probable reasons for decline. One reason often cited is the decline in suitable forest habitat. Mule deer density and distribution varies depending on forest habitat quality, which is directly linked to the amount of cover and quality of vegetation.

Arizona ponderosa pine forests burned every 2 to 8 years before European settlement, and these natural lightning strike fires increased vegetation diversity. Tree density was much lower than it is today, so when fires did occur, they were cooler. Research indicates cooler fires often stimulate browse growth, create openings in dense stands, and increase the nutritional content of forage. Although the Rodeo Chedeski was very severe below the Mogollon Rim, the high speed of the fire above the rim left a mosaic of unburned (7%) and lightly burned habitat (40%), while 53% of the area was moderately to heavily burned. We will examine how mule deer use the different severities of burned habitats in the Rodeo-Chedeski area.

We will conduct the project on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in the eastern portion of the burn. The project will extend as far north as Highway 260, east to Forest Service road (FR) 146, south to the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, and west to FR 168.

We will capture female mule deer and collar them with GPS radio-collars that record a minimum of 5 locations a day. This new technology allows us to collect much more information than ever before without us being there and influencing their movements. We will use satellite imagery and remote sensing to create a GIS vegetation cover map that will help us identify habitat differences. We will examine mule deer habitat use in patches of different burn severities to determine how the Rodeo Chedeski fire influenced female mule deer behavior.

An increase in the number of catastrophic fires has caused a broad scientific, social, and political consensus that restoration of ecological sustainability in southwestern pine forests is necessary and urgent. Recently, the President proposed categorical exclusion from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA-Healthy Forest Initiative) for forest thinning projects, and annual treatments are now proposed for >81,000 ha in Arizona and New Mexico. Numerous treatments and techniques from mechanical to burning are planned to reduce tree density, and results may mimic the heterogeneous landscape left by the Rodeo Chedeski Fire. Reducing tree density at landscape scale areas could positively influence mule deer by increasing early successional stage habitat rather than later stages, when most nutrients are used up by woody material. However, the optimal area to be thinned and/or burned, and the cover that needs to be left needs to be determined so that mule deer can escape heat and predation. We hope that studying the response of mule deer to a mosaic of burned habitat patches will provide specific suggestions to design future forest thinning projects soon to occur under the Healthy Forest Initiative. Hopefully, these suggestions will benefit and increase mule deer numbers in what is currently poor quality habitat.

For more information contact:
Stan Cunningham, Arizona Game and Fish Department, 5000 W. Carefree Highway Phoenix, AZ 85086-5000 .
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