Wildlife and Wildfire

As I write this, we’ve had nearly 50 thousand acres burn in the ongoing wildfires across Western North Carolina. The recent rains and more in the forecast will do much to either put them out or get them 100% contained. Thanks to the valiant efforts of fire crews there has been no loss of life or buildings consumed in the fires in North Carolina. The question comes up: What happens to the wildlife? Here’s my impression, not based on any reports but more on personal experience and research. Most wildlife are able to flee a fire well in advance, especially if it is slow moving like we have in the mountains. Their sense of danger is much more acute than for human, and don’t wait around for the flames to touch them. Birds fly out of danger, deer and other ground dwelling mammals run out of the affected area. Some species, primarily creepy crawlers like snakes, will not survive. That is nature. Animals are generally fire adaptive.

Of greater interest should be what about wildlife after the fire. Here the news is nothing but good. Typically fires in our region, whether wild or planned, only burn with low intensity. These simply burn the leaf litter and dead trees on the ground. All photos I’ve seen of these wildfires indicate these fires are burning with higher intensity and getting above ground into tree canopies. So how are these two types of fires different for wildlife?

A low intensity burn does provide short term growth of forest understory providing both food and cover for wildlife. However, the existing tree canopy continues to shade out the area and within a couple of years that ground cover is gone. Conversely, these wildfires are burning large patches of rhododendron and burning trees. Also, fire fighters are removing trees and cutting fire lines to slow the spread. This will remove some of the tree canopy which lets more light onto the ground and provide more widespread regeneration of young trees and vegetation. This is a similar effect to a timber harvest through forest thinning or clear cut.

So the long term affect on wildlife is positive. The best example of this is the Yellowstone fire of 1988. A massive wildfire swept through the National Park and devastated most of the natural habitat. Despite the prognostications from environmentalist the regenerating forests became a magnet for wildlife including the majestic elk. It will probably take 5 – 10 years for the forest to regenerate but I predict those burn areas will be teeming with wildlife in a few years. Deer, turkey, grouse and other wildlife like the thick ground cover of a regenerating forest. It is proven science.

I will add one caveat. Those conditions for wildlife will improve greatly if the USFS and NC WRC act rapidly after the fires to go in and do additional habitat work. The USFS needs to get permission to bypass regulatory requirements and remove trees that still have timber value but will not survive. The NC WRC needs to be planning NOW to plant native warm season grasses along fire breaks and other areas conducive for wildlife openings. These actions will increase the potential for improving wildlife habitat. It these actions are taken, I hope to one day report on 20 – 25 grouse flushes per day in about 10 years.