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Baylor Researcher to Study Fire Potential and Land Management to Save Endangered Bird Species in Austin

April 19, 2010

A new Baylor University study will look at land management strategies and specifically assess fire potential and impacts on two endangered bird species within the Austin city limits.

Dr. Joseph White, associate professor of biology at Baylor, and his research team have just received several grants totaling nearly $70,000 from the City of Austin to study roughly 40,000 acres at more than 100 different locations around the city. The Baylor researchers will identify movement patterns of certain trees and grasses, and will identify various species "types" important to the region and to the habitat of the golden-cheeked warbler and the black-capped vireo, two types of birds on the endangered species list.

The mapping will allow researchers to measure fire and tree cutting in these regions as a part of assessing fire potential and impacts on the two endangered bird species. Both species require trees and grasses to be an appropriate height and density to ensure breeding success.

"We will be looking at growth rates with fire and without fire and will be able to see how the landscapes have changed and how influential these changes have been to the birds," White said. "The study will give us insight into how to maintain a natural disturbance variability because these birds are basically on their last stand in this area."

The Baylor study will play a central part in the planning for Austin's endangered species portfolio to determine past levels of natural disturbance, habitat area and future protection zones within the urban-wildland areas.

White said the biggest issue is the amount of urban development occurring next to natural woodlands, which have both fire risk to homes and are an important habitat for the two endangered bird species. Previous studies conducted by Baylor researchers have found some trees, particularly junipers, have not advanced as some have thought in the region. The trees have basically stayed the same size, just moved places, while the perception of junipers taking over the landscape is not validated by the data from the past century.

White said fires occurred in the past over large regions and maintained the habitat for the golden-cheeked warbler and the black-capped vireo. Since then, fires have decreased dramatically in the last 50 years, however that could lead to larger and more catastrophic fires that may wipe out the habitat and ultimately the birds.

The study will take about a year to complete.