Use prescribed fire to maintain or restore disturbance in forests

How is the evidence assessed?
  • Effectiveness
    not assessed
  • Certainty
    not assessed
  • Harms
    not assessed

Study locations

Key messages

  • Five studies evaluated the effects on butterflies and moths of using prescribed fire to maintain or restore disturbance in forests. Four studies were in the USA and one was in Australia.


  • Richness/diversity (4 studies): Three of four studies (including one replicated study, one paired study, two controlled studies, two before-and-after studies, and one site comparison study) in the USA found that coniferous forest restored 1–2 years ago by burning (in combination with thinning) or burned once within the last 20 years, had a higher species richness of butterflies than unburned forest. The fourth study found that mixed forest and shrubland sites which had been burned the year before had similar butterfly species richness to unburned sites.


  • Abundance (3 studies): Two studies (including one controlled, before-and-after study and one site comparison study) in the USA found that pine forest restored 1–2 years ago by burning (in combination with thinning) had a higher abundance of butterflies than unburned forest. One replicated, before-and-after study in Australia reported that in the spring after selective burning of eucalyptus forest there were fewer Eltham copper caterpillars than before.


About key messages

Key messages provide a descriptive index to studies we have found that test this intervention.

Studies are not directly comparable or of equal value. When making decisions based on this evidence, you should consider factors such as study size, study design, reported metrics and relevance of the study to your situation, rather than simply counting the number of studies that support a particular interpretation.

Supporting evidence from individual studies

  1. A site comparison study in 1998 in two pine forests in Arizona, USA (Waltz & Covington 1999) found that a forest restored by prescribed burning and thinning young trees had a higher abundance and species richness of butterflies than an unrestored forest. Two years after burning and thinning, the restored forest had a higher abundance (6–46 individuals/visit) and species richness (3–11 species/visit) of butterflies than the unrestored forest (abundance: 0–7 individuals/visit; richness: 0–4 species/visit). One species, the checkered white Pieris protodice, was only found in the restored forest, but another, the California sister Limenitis bredowii, was only found in the unrestored forest. In 1996, a 40-acre ponderosa pine Pinus ponderosa forest was burned and thinned (pole-sized trees removed) to reopen the dense understorey. An adjacent forest was not restored. From May–July 1998, butterflies were surveyed six times (every two weeks) along a single 450-m transect in each forest.

    Study and other actions tested
  2. A replicated, paired, before-and-after, site comparison study in 1996–1998 in 12 mixed forest and shrubland sites in Nevada, USA (Fleishman 2000) found that butterfly species richness was similar between burned and unburned plots. Butterfly species richness was similar between plots that had been burned and plots that had not, and between plots before and after they were burned (data presented as model results). Additionally, the difference in butterfly community composition between two years in which plots had been burned was similar to between two years in plots which had not been burned in the first year but had been burned in the second year (data presented as community composition indices). Five plots (7–17 ha each) were burned in October 1996 or April 1997 and surveyed in 1997–1998. Two of the burn plots had paired unburned plots, similar in size, topography and pre-burning vegetation, but they too were burned in November 1997 and became burn plots thereafter. Five additional unburned plots (55–127 ha each) were surveyed in 1996–1998. In survey years at each plot, butterflies were identified via walking transects every two weeks from June–September.

    Study and other actions tested
  3. A replicated, before-and-after study in 1998–1999 in two Eucalyptus forest sites in Victoria, Australia (New et al 2000) reported that in the following spring after selective habitat burning there were fewer Eltham copper Paralucia pyrodiscus lucida caterpillars than before. One week after burning, 580 caterpillars were counted at the western colony (numbers for the eastern colony not provided), indicating some had survived the fire. By the following spring, caterpillars were found in both the burnt and unburnt patches but in lower numbers than in the previous year (data not provided). In the spring and summer following the burning, adult butterflies were found in both burnt and unburnt areas of both sites, but at one site (the eastern colony), they were mostly concentrated in the unburnt areas. Two forested sites with populations of the Eltham copper were partially burned in April 1998 (50% of the eastern colony and 75% of the western colony). Individual Bursaria spinosa plants (the sole larval food plant), on which caterpillars had been found prior to burning, were marked and avoided by the burning. Burning was planned for as late as possible in the summer to increase the likelihood that caterpillars would be well-fed and not suffer from the removal of vegetation prior to overwintering. Numbers of caterpillars and butterflies were surveyed at the two sites a week after the fire and in the following spring and summer (further survey timings not provided).

    Study and other actions tested
  4. A replicated, controlled study in 1998–1999 in two upland coniferous forest reserves in Oregon and California, USA (Huntzinger 2003) found that sites subjected to prescribed burning had more species of butterfly than unburned sites. In forest patches which had been burned once in the last 1–19 years, there were more species of butterfly (11–14 species/patch) than in patches not burned for at least 20 years (4–7 species/patch). There were also more species in burned “fuel-break” corridors (16 species/site) than in unburned corridors (1 species/site) and in riparian strips burned in the last 1–13 years (25 species/site) than in unburned strips (10 species/site). Butterfly species diversity was 0.5–8 times higher in the burned habitats than the unburned habitats (see paper for details). In Oregon, five upland forest patches were burned once between 1991 and 1997, and five patches were unburned since at least 1978. Five wide, shaded, corridors of thinned vegetation (“fuel breaks”) were burned and four were unburned (no dates given). In California, five upland forest patches were burned once between 1980 and 1998, and seven patches were unburned. Four riparian strips were burned once from 1986–1998, and five strips were unburned (no date given). Butterflies were surveyed along one 240-m transect/site, six times from late June–August 1998 in Oregon, and five times from late June–August 1999 in California.

    Study and other actions tested
  5. A replicated, randomized, paired, controlled, before-and-after study in 1997–2001 in a pine forest in Arizona, USA (Waltz & Covington 2004) found that forests restored by prescribed burning and thinning had a higher abundance and species richness of butterflies than unrestored forests. One and two years after burning and thinning, restored forests had a higher butterfly abundance (48–132 individuals/unit) and species richness (7–16 species/unit) than unrestored forests (abundance: 10–42 individuals/unit; richness: 4–10 species/unit). Before restoration, there was no significant difference between forest marked for restoration (abundance: 23–50 individuals/unit; richness: 8–12 species/unit) and unrestored forest (abundance: 10–41 individuals/unit; richness: 5–13 species/unit). These results were primarily due to the abundance of species of blue (Lycaenidae) and white (Pieridae) butterflies (see paper for details). In 1997, four blocks within a 5,000-ha ponderosa pine Pinus ponderosa forest were each divided into two units (≤40-ha each). In autumn/winter 1999–2000, one randomly assigned unit/block was burned and thinned. The other units were not restored. From May–August 1997, 1998, 2000 and 2001, butterflies were surveyed six times/year (two-week intervals) along two or three 300-m transects/unit.

    Study and other actions tested
Please cite as:

Bladon A.J., Bladon, E. K., Smith R.K. & Sutherland W.J. (2023) Butterfly and Moth Conservation: Global Evidence for the Effects of Interventions for butterflies and moths. Conservation Evidence Series Synopsis. University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK.

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Butterfly and Moth Conservation

This Action forms part of the Action Synopsis:

Butterfly and Moth Conservation
Butterfly and Moth Conservation

Butterfly and Moth Conservation - Published 2023

Butterfly and Moth Synopsis

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