Neighborhood Critters – Wildlife Under Fire

How animals cope during and after the wildfires

Devastating reports of people who lost their homes—and sometimes their lives—in recent wildfires may lead you to wonder what became of the animals who lived in the burn zones. Did they suffer the same kinds of damage? Will they recover in the years to come?

Animals did indeed suffer significant losses in the wildfires. Their homes were burned. In cases where they could not outrun the fire or find a safe hiding place, they perished. Among those who escaped the flames, disrupted supplies of food, water and shelter made survival difficult and sometimes impossible. Because recent wildfires were so intense and widespread, wildlife in the burn zones were especially hard hit.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that, while individual animals certainly suffered, many survived, and animal populations will generally bounce back. Often, the survivors fare even better than they did before the burn.

How can that be? Fire clears room for new plant growth, while ashes can act as a fertilizer. Deer, for example, thrive on tender new leaves and may actually find food more abundant in the post-burn era. Smaller species, such as mice, are biologically designed to reproduce quickly, so whatever losses they experience during the fire are quickly recovered in the months to follow. Growing populations of these animals benefit predators in turn. Nature’s design is to heal itself.

In some cases, however, nature may need a helping hand. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, last fall’s wildfires burned 19 percent of the critical habitat for the Quino checkerspot butterfly; 12 percent of the modeled habitat for the mountain yellow-legged frog; 16 percent of critical habitat for the California gnatcatcher; and 3 percent of the critical habitat of least Bell’s vitreo—all listed as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“We recognize that fire is a natural and important ecological disturbance in southern California,” states Monica Bond, Center biologist and primary author of the report. “However, burned habitat can be rendered temporarily unsuitable as vegetation regrows.” Recovery is complicated by human-caused impacts that aren’t related to fire: the introduction of non-native species, and the fragmentation of habitat due to urban sprawl. The Center urges further study to ensure that baseline conditions for these endangered creatures will allow them to survive.

Even for non-endangered species, the spread of civilization presents an ongoing challenge. As nature’s empire continues to shrink—and our dominion grows—striking an intelligent balance between working with nature and respecting its boundaries is key. We all live in one home: It’s critical that we learn to share it.

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

After a wildfire or other catastrophic event, it’s normal to want to feed animals in order to help them out. Don’t. Finding new food sources is a critical step in their long-term survival.  Making wild animals dependent on people for food can actually harm them in the long run.

 

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