Wildlife & Fire: What’s an Animal to Do?

Red squirrels that live in dense conifer habitat may be impacted both during the burn and after.

Throughout the ages, wildlife have adapted to fire. In the long-term, fire usually benefits wildlife because it improves their habitat.

In the short-term, however, “there are winners and, unfortunately, losers,” says Edward Smith, forest ecologist for The Nature Conservancy in Arizona.

Each wildlife species has its own fire survival techniques. The mobile animals—such as elk, deer, pronghorn and mountain lions—run to safer ground. Black bears can hole up in dens, while small mammals and reptiles can burrow underground or seek shelter in rock dens. Research has shown that burrowing even six inches will protect animals from fires reaching up to 3,000 degrees above ground, according to Arizona Game and Fish.

During the Wallow Fire, nesting birds may be among the losers. While the adult birds can fly away, their young that have not yet developed their wings can succumb to the fire.

Red squirrels that live in dense conifer habitat may also be impacted both during the burn and after; that forest type has burned severely in many areas of the Wallow fire, says Sue Sitko, the Conservancy’s Northern Arizona conservation manager.

In the past, fires were typically more frequent and less intense, burning through undergrowth and rejuvenating grasses and shrubs. These fires were less severe than the large destructive fires such as the Wallow and the Rodeo-Chediski fire of 2002. In fires of this scale and intensity, some animals may move greater distances and become temporarily displaced; however, after the Rodeo-Chediski fire, Arizona Game and Fish personnel conducted aerial and ground surveys and found no evidence of a large migration of elk or deer out of the burn area.

Perhaps that’s because they’re anticipating the feast to come. “Typically fires release tons of carbon and nutrients, creating a flush of plant growth after a burn,” says Smith.

After the 1988 Yellowstone fires, scientists observed that bears grazed more frequently at burned sites than unburned sites. Some of the grasses that elk ate were more nutritious after the fire.

Of course, habitat changes are a mixed bag, depending on what species you are and how the habitat has changed. After a severe fire, cavity-nesting birds will have more dead trees for their nests. On the other hand, birds dependent on mature forests lose their habitat.

Of particular concern in the Wallow fire is the fate of the endangered Mexican wolf packs living in the White Mountains. Two of four wolf packs that are known to reproduce regularly in Arizona—the Rim and Bluestem Packs—are in the immediate area of the fire. At the beginning of June, the Bluestem Pack was confirmed to have pups. Aerial surveys as of mid-June indicate both packs are displaying denning behavior.

Wildlife officials with Arizona Game and Fish and other agencies are monitoring wildlife and once the Wallow fire is contained, they will conduct a comprehensive assessment of the fires’ impacts to wildlife.

Wildlife in Distress: Things Not to Do

Arizona Game and Fish offers these tips for people who may want to try to help wildlife.

  • Do not pick up, capture or attempt to rescue "orphaned" young wildlife. Adult wildlife with young have developed behavioral responses whereby they may hide young in an effort to elude perceived predators, and the wildlife you believe to have been abandoned are often simply awaiting the return of their mother after you leave the area. Young animals that are turned into the Game and Fish Department or rehabilitators are often unable to be returned to the wild and may have to be euthanized. It is far better that they are left in the wild unmolested.
  • Do not feed displaced wildlife. There are many more negative consequences than positive when it comes to feeding animals, including potential aggression towards humans, disruption of their natural digestive systems, and artificially "holding" them in a specific area when they would normally seek an area with better habitat conditions.



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