Short-term Response of Eastern Cottontails to Prescribed Fire in East-central Mississippi

Prescribed burning is an often used and economical management tool to manage for northern bobwhite (Colinus virginianus) and eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus). Although prescribed fire creates and maintains early successional plant communities that benefit cottontails, short-term effects (direct and indirect) of prescribed burning on cottontails are unclear. To document cottontail response to fire, we examined pre- and post-burn home range (HR) and core area (CA) size, post-burn movement rates, and post-burn survival and cause-specific mortality rates for 10 cottontails (BURN) that inhabited sites burned with prescribed fire on Black Prairie Wildlife Management Area in Mississippi during 1998 and 10 cottontails (UNBURN) selected randomly that inhabited unburned sties. We observed no direct mortality from prescribed burns. Cottontails moved a mean distance of 84.9 m (SE=18.0) immediately after the burn, with 9 of 10 marked cottontails emigrating from burned fields. We observed no statistical differences between treatments (BURN vs. UNBURN) for pre-burn home range (HR; 3.57 ha vs. 3.58 ha) and core area sizes (CA; 0.46 ha vs. 0.45 ha), post-burn HR (6.17 ha vs. 3.76 ha) and CA (0.94 ha vs. 0.58 ha), overall movement rate (23.8 m/hour vs. 19.5 m/hour), diurnal movement rates (8.2 m/hour vs. 6.0 m/hour), crepsuscular movement rate (26.5 m/hour vs. 24.3 m/hour), survival rate (0.200 vs. 0.480), mammalian cause-specific mortality rate (0.296 vs. 0.206), and unknown predator cause-specific mortality rate (0.000 vs. 0.206). We did observe treatment effects on post-burn nocturnal movement rate (58.1 m/hour vs 28.8 m/hour) and avian cause-specific mortality rate (0.493 vs. 0.103). Percentage use of individual fields that were burned declined following the fires (pre- vs. post-burn) for all locations (0.887 vs. 0.265), diurnal (0.948 vs. 0.141), and nocturnal (0.827 vs. 0.390) periods. Our observations provide information on responses of cottontails during the first year following prescribed fire and a framework for additional research regarding long-term benefits and impacts of this useful management tool.

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