5 Ways Wildfires Threaten Western Wildlife

The wildfires raging throughout the West are a stark reminder of the new world we are living in. One in which climate change due to carbon pollution takes something that once was a part of a healthy, natural cycle—like a wildfire—and turns it into monster that leaves in its wake long-term damage to people, the landscape and wildlife.

In places like New Mexico and Colorado, which are seeing some of their worst wildfires in history, the full extent of the damage is yet to be seen. For the elk, black bears, mountain lions, mule deer, pronghorn, red-tailed hawks, trout and countless other species that call the Gila, Lincoln, Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests home, the increased intensity, frequency and size of these fires is not something they are always prepared to deal with. While many animals will be able to survive these fires, some will not.

Here are 5 ways catastrophic fires threaten Western wildlife:

Photo credit: Flickr user kdee64
  1. No escape. For some animals, like newly hatched, downy nestlings that are unable to fly, there is simply no way to flee the fire. For others, escape routes can force wildlife across roads, putting them at greater risk of being hit by vehicles. In other instances, the pace at which a fire spreads can trap even the fastest moving animals, including pronghorn, elk and deer.
  2. Habitat destruction. Massive wildlife fires in the West are destroying forests, including interspersed sagebrush habitats which, in the decades ahead, are expected to become a fraction of their current size due to warmer temperatures and more frequent major wildfires. A recent study of global warming impacts in the Great Basin projects up to an 80-percent reduction in the area of sagebrush ecosystems across the region. Any significant decline in the West’s remaining native sagebrush habitats will have devastating consequences for sage grouse, mule deer, pronghorn and other species that depend on them.  Fires raging across the West are destroying sagebrush habitats, some of which can take 120 or more years to recover.
  3. Hotter, bigger and more frequent firespronghorn in New Mexico photographed by Phillip D. Page. The increasing number, size and intensity of wildfires is dramatically altering habitat for fish and wildlife. For example: very hot, long-burning fires damage soils by burning organic matter, breaking down soil structure, and reducing water  retention. These fires also destroy the natural vegetation that shades cold-water streams, which helps keep them cool. None of these changes are beneficial to favored angling species such as trout, which require a steady supply of clean, cold and silt-free water.
  4. More stress. Catastrophic fires make it harder for wildlife to recover afterwards. They have to move longer distances to re-colonize burned areas. The burned soils have lost important nutrients, and even more nutrients wash away in the erosion after the fires.  As a result, there can be lower productivity of plants and wildlife. The more frequent burnings only exacerbate these stresses on wildlife.
  5. Smoke coming from the fire burning in the foothills west of Fort Collins in northern Colorado. The trees in the foreground have been damaged by pine bark beetles. Photo credit: Judith Kohler
    Changing ecology. Various species of pine bark beetles cause the death of coniferous trees when the beetles burrowing under the bark carry fungus, which then grows and blocks the tree’s sap flow. Milder winters are allowing more beetle larvae to survive and longer/warmer summers are allowing more generations per year, leading to exploding beetle populations. Entire forests are being destroyed—up to a million trees a year during a single outbreak—and affecting the many species that live there. And left behind is a full tinder box just waiting to explode with the next lightening strike. It can take many decades, even hundreds of years, for mature forests to return.

To learn more about how climate change is affecting Western forests read Dr. Amanda Staudt’s recent post or visit NWF’s page about wildfires and wildlife.

Take ActionHelp create a better future for wildlife by sending a message to the Environmental Protection Agency in support of limiting carbon pollution from coal-burning power plants.