Fire and forage quality: Postfire regrowth quality and pyric herbivory in subtropical grasslands of Nepal
Fire is rampant throughout subtropical South and Southeast Asian grasslands. However, very little is known about the role of fire and pyric herbivory on the functioning of highly productive subtropical monsoon grasslands lying within the Cwa climatic region. We assessed the temporal effect of fire on postfire regrowth quality and associated pyric-herbivory in the subtropical monsoon grasslands of Bardia National Park, Nepal. Every year, grasslands are burned as a management intervention in the park, especially between March and May. Within a week after fire, at the end of March 2020, we established 60 m × 60 m plots within patches of burned grassland in the core area of the Park. We collected grass samples from the plots and determined physical and chemical properties of the vegetation at regular 30-day intervals from April to July 2020, starting from 30 days after fire to assess postfire regrowth forage quality. We counted pellet groups of cervids that are abundant in the area for the same four months from 2 m × 2 m quadrats that were permanently marked with pegs along the diagonal of each 60 m × 60 m plot to estimate intensity of use by deer to the progression of postfire regrowth. We observed strong and significant reductions in crude protein (mean value 9.1 to 4.1 [55% decrease]) and phosphorus (mean value 0.2 to 0.11 [45% decrease]) in forage collected during different time intervals, that is, from 30 days to 120 days after fire. Deer utilized the burned areas extensively for a short period, that is, up to two months after fire when the burned areas contained short grasses with a higher level of crude protein and phosphorus. The level of use of postfire regrowth by chital (Axis axis) differed significantly over time since fire, with higher intensity of use at 30 days after fire. The level of use of postfire regrowth by swamp deer (Rucervus duvaucelii) did not differ significantly until 90 days after fire, however, decreased significantly after 90 days since fire. Large-scale single event fires, thus, may not fulfil nutritional requirements of all species in the deer assemblage in these subtropical monsoon grasslands. This is likely because the nutritional requirements of herbivores differ due to differences in body size and physiological needs—maintenance, reproduction, and lactation. We recommend a spatiotemporal manipulation of fire to reinforce grazing feedback and to yield forage of high quality for the longest possible period for a sustainable high number of deer to maintain a viable tiger population within the park.