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Desert tortoise use of burned habitat in the Eastern Mojave desert

April 1, 2015

Wildfires burned 24,254 ha of critical habitat designated for the recovery of the threatened Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) in southern Nevada during 2005. The proliferation of non-native annual grasses has increased wildfire frequency and extent in recent decades and continues to accelerate the conversion of tortoise habitat across the Mojave Desert. Immediate changes to vegetation are expected to reduce quality of critical habitat, yet whether tortoises will use burned and recovering habitat differently from intact unburned habitat is unknown. We compared movement patterns, home-range size, behavior, microhabitat use, reproduction, and survival for adult desert tortoises located in, and adjacent to, burned habitat to understand how tortoises respond to recovering burned habitat. Approximately 45% of home ranges in the post-fire environment contained burned habitat, and numerous observations (n = 12,223) corroborated tortoise use of both habitat types (52% unburned, 48% burned). Tortoises moved progressively deeper into burned habitat during the first 5 years following the fire, frequently foraging in burned habitats that had abundant annual plants, and returning to adjacent unburned habitat for cover provided by intact perennial vegetation. However, by years 6 and 7, the live cover of the short-lived herbaceous perennial desert globemallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua) that typically re-colonizes burned areas declined, resulting in a contraction of tortoise movements from the burned areas. Health and egg production were similar between burned and unburned areas indicating that tortoises were able to acquire necessary resources using both areas. This study documents that adult Mojave desert tortoises continue to use habitat burned once by wildfire. Thus, continued management of this burned habitat may contribute toward the recovery of the species in the face of many sources of habitat loss.

Publication Year 2015
Title Desert tortoise use of burned habitat in the Eastern Mojave desert
DOI 10.1002/jwmg.874
Authors K. Kristina Drake, Todd C. Esque, Kenneth E. Nussear, Lesley DeFalco, Sara J. Scoles-Sciulla, Andrew T. Modlin, Philip A. Medica
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Journal of Wildlife Management
Index ID 70146795
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Western Ecological Research Center