Effects of large herbivores on fire regimes and wildfire mitigation

Rouet-Leduc, J. et al. | Journal of Applied Ecology | 2021 | Peer Reviewed | Original research | https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1365-2664.13972


1. Abandonment of agricultural land is widespread in many parts of the world, leading to shrub and tree encroachment. The increase of flammable plant biomass, that is, fuel load, increases the risk and intensity of wildfires. Fuel reduction by herbivores is a promising management strategy to avoid fuel build-up and mitigate wildfires. However, their effectiveness in mitigating wildfire damage may depend on a range of factors, including herbivore type, population density and feeding patterns.

2. Here, we review the evidence on whether management with herbivores can reduce fuel load and mitigate wildfires, and if so, how to identify suitable management that can achieve fire mitigation objectives while providing other ecosystem services. We systematically reviewed studies that investigated links between herbivores, fire hazard, fire frequency and fire damage.

3. We found that, in general, herbivores reduce fuel load most effectively when they are mixed feeders, when grazing and browsing herbivores are combined and when herbivore food preferences match the local vegetation. In some cases, the combination of herbivory with other management strategies, such as mechanical clearing, is necessary to reduce wildfire damage.

4. Synthesis and Applications. We conclude that herbivores have the capacity to mitigate wildfire damage, and we provide guidance for grazing management for wildfire mitigation strategies. As areas undergoing land abandonment are particularly prone to wildfires, the maintenance or promotion of grazing by domestic or wild herbivores is a promising tool to reduce wildfire risk in a cost-effective way, while also providing other ecosystem services. Relevant land-use policies, including fire suppression policies, agricultural and forest(ry) policies could incentivise the use of herbivores for better wildfire prevention.

Habitat type

  • Temperate broadleaf and mixed forests
  • Tropical and subtropical coniferous forests
  • Tropical-subtropical-dry and monsoon broadleaf forests
  • Tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests
  • Mediterranean shrublands and woodlands
  • Tropical montane grasslands and savannas
  • Temperate grasslands-savannas and shrublands
  • Tropical and subtropical grassland-savannas and shrublands

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