Do prescribed fires in South Florida reduce habitat quality for native carnivores?

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Prescribed fire, as a management tool, is unquestionably vital to the maintenance of natural areas in the southeastern United States. However, centuries of tradition and one-size-fits-all prescriptions may ultimately reduce the ability for key preserves to support the Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi Bangs) and black bear (Ursus americanus floridanus Pallas) in the only area that supports both species in the eastern U.S. Overly frequent fires and out-of-season fires, especially in south Florida saw palmetto (Serenoa repens Bartr.) habitat, have the potential to change landscape patterns as well as the evolutionary relations between large carnivores and their prey. Whereas frequent winter fires may reduce potentially dangerous fuel loads and provide temporary forage for panther prey, subsequent changes in upland plant communities may reduce important bear foods and the structures used as natal dens. Large carnivore management in south Florida has the potential to maintain historical levels of biodiversity, but only if fire is an ingredient that fits the evolutionary history of this subtropical landscape and the organisms that evolved there. We provide a blueprint for fire management in south Florida forests that is based on the autecology of large carnivores and saw palmetto, a key vegetative component of this flat, subtropical landscape.

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Natural Areas Journal

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