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 with Rob Miskosky

Wildlife and Fire

As I write this, there are 27 wildfires burning in Alberta that are classified as out-of-control, and some are very large with the largest consuming more than 94,000 hectares so far and several others that are in that 60,000 hectare range. That’s a lot of land affected.

Driving to Edmonton this morning was almost surreal, as smoke has blanketed most of the province. Apparently, southern Alberta, including Calgary, have it worse than we do farther north. Even though most of the fires are burning in the north, wind plays no favourites.

Wildfires can affect human populations in a variety of negative ways and Alberta is seeing this first-hand with thousands of people being evacuated from their homes.

Wildfires can be started because of natural causes like lightning, because of human-caused accidents like tossing burning cigarettes out or leaving campfires still hot, or even through deliberate acts of arson—yes, there are some sick people out there.

But what about the effect of wildfires on wildlife? While healthy, larger animals such as deer, elk and moose can outrun a wildfire, older, young, or sick animals might perish. Smaller animals such as mice and voles most likely remain in their burrows or seek refuge inside or under fallen logs and hope for the best. Some wildlife such as marten, fisher and squirrels will climb high into trees and slow-moving wildlife like porcupines might do the same. Some animals may be compelled to move towards bodies of water such as lakes or rivers to escape an intense fire. But waterbodies can only offer temporary respite, as they too are not completely immune to the effects of wildfires. Large and intense fires can generate their own weather patterns that could potentially pose risks to animals seeking shelter in lakes or rivers.

But smoke inhalation and confusion also plays a part in whether or not an animal will survive a wildfire. Smoke inhalation affects animals the same as it does humans and too much smoke can cause asphyxiation. Animals can also become confused and turn back into a wildfire only to perish while others end up escaping into human habitats where they are unwanted, leading to human-wildlife conflicts.

Amazingly, it is estimated that nearly three billion animals, including mammals, reptiles, birds, and frogs were killed or displaced during Australia’s 2019-20 bushfires that burned more than 29-million acres of forest and woodlands.

But what happens to wildlife after a wildfire also needs consideration. Post-fire environments can lead to increased competition among wildlife for limited resources, as animals migrate to nearby unburned areas or travel to find suitable habitats, food, and water. Interconnected patches of habitat become crucial for the movement and dispersal of wildlife seeking new homes. Fighting will become prevalent, as animals move into territories occupied and defended by others of the same species. These fights can lead to death in many cases. Disease may also be a factor, as more animals come into contact with each other.

Predators will also take advantage of the vulnerable state of their prey species, as they too will be seeking new habitats and food sources. This loss of habitat, food, and even nesting sites will cause wildlife to perish, an impact that can last for several years.

Animals dependent upon old growth forests also face a perilous future. Caribou especially require the lichens provided by old growth forests. When these forests are removed whether through logging or wildfire, so too goes the foods caribou depend upon.

But not all is lost. While wildfires can be destructive, they also play a natural role in the ecosystem. After a fire, the burned habitat goes through a process of regeneration and new plant growth begins. Some plant life like the jack pine rely on fire to release their seeds, and ashes from the fire helps fertilize the soil, in turn helping the seeds to grow faster and stronger. This regeneration provides opportunities for wildlife to find food, shelter, and nesting sites. Ungulates can thrive in this new habitat, as food opportunities grow. This in turn results in more food sources for predators too. Lynx, for example, will thrive as the numbers of snowshoe hare, grouse, and other small mammals increase in this newly regenerating habitat. Bears will also benefit, as berries become abundant—an important part of the diet of both black and grizzly bears.

So, while we struggle with heavy smoke and share concerns over wildlife, we should mostly worry about our friends and neighbours whose lives have been altered. Our wildlife will be fine, but our friends and neighbours might not be.

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