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Response of a Keystone Species to the Removal of Downed Wood in a California oak woodland

William D. Tietje, Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, University of California, Berkeley

Timothy J. Smyser, National Wildlife Research Center, Fort Collins, CO

Michael A. Hardy, Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, University of California, Berkeley


Downed wood (DW) and snags can fulfill a variety of important ecological needs for small terrestrial vertebrats. Due to increasing frequency of wildfires, fuel-reduction practices, and higher mortality of large trees this century, the study of DW and snags has taken on increased importance in the Western United States. From 2004 to 2009, we used a before-after-control-impact (BACI) study design to assess the effects of an experimental removal of DW on a population of big-eared woodrats (Neotoma macrotis) in an oak (Quercus spp.) woodland in coastal-central California. We used mark-recapture analyses to investigate the influence of DW removal on survival and emigration (movement off treated areas), and further explored relationships between snags and woodrat reproduction. Woodrat survival was lower and movement off study plots was higher in response to the removal of DW. Apparently due to high-quality nesting sites provided by snags, successful reproduction was more likely on plots with greater snag densities. Collectively our findings suggest that DW and snags are key components of high-quality habitat for big-eared woodrats. In areas with more DW and snags, woodrats survive better, make fewer risky movements, and are more likely to reproduce successfully. Given that DW and snags can increase wildfire risk, strategic planning is needed to balance fire prevention strategies with preserving the ecological benefits of DW and snags for species such as the big-eared woodrat.