Do Wildfires Affect Some Wild Animals More Than Others?

To see how wildlife would survive after the 2013 Springs Fire burned over 24,000 acres in the Santa Monica Mountains, biologists began to monitor wild animals using motion-sensor cameras placed in both burned and untouched areas.

The footage from those cameras showed that coyotes, deer and skunks were thriving in the burned areas. Bobcats and rabbits had practically disappeared, however.

While other studies have focused on how wildfires affect vegetation, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area biologists wanted to observe how animal species respond to burned habitats. They had the opportunity to do this when a wildlife camera project ended around the same time as the Springs Fire, and thus the Springs Fire Wildlife Project was born.

Reusing those 30 cameras, the biologists used statistical software to randomly select 90 camera points. The placement of the cameras was adjusted to ensure safety and adequate visibility. For the past two years, just one volunteer, Keith Boden, has kept the project going. Once a month, he traverses rough terrain to reach the cameras, swap out their memory cards and rotate them among the 90 camera sites.

Previous studies have found that wildlife is usually able to successfully flee from fires, with the exception of young and small animals. While the number of wild animals killed by wildfires each year is unknown, no entire populations or species have ever been wiped out, National Geographic reports.

The altered landscape in burn areas can actually provide new opportunities for some wildlife. For example, woodpeckers could feed on bark beetles in dead trees, according to National Geographic. Wild areas naturally change over time, so a wildfire can be like a necessary reset button allowing a forest to be reborn, Patricia Kennedy, a wildlife biologist at Oregon State University, told National Geographic. “A lot of species require that reset,” she said.

So why did bobcats and rabbits seem to vanish from the burned areas in the Santa Monica Mountains? The rabbits either weren’t mobile enough to escape the flames or died of starvation after the fire, Justin Brown, a National Park Service (NPS) ecologist who’s the leader of the study, told KPCC. As for the bobcats, they probably left the burn area because they lost their main source of food — the rabbits — and also because they prefer woody undergrowth that was destroyed by the fire.

The animals that thrived were mobile or ate a wide variety of food, Brown said. Coyotes did especially well, showing up on camera twice as much in the burned areas as in unburned areas of the mountains. They were the only species to appear in greater numbers in burned areas than unburned ones during the first year of the project.

“They’re one of the few species that’s able to adapt with us and move around the country,” Brown told KPCC. “There’s not really anywhere in the continental U.S. that coyotes aren’t occurring.”

The biologists will use what they learn from this project to help the NPS come up with plans to help protect and save wildlife as wildfires become more frequent. Surprisingly, although 2017 has been one of the worst years ever for wildfires in the western United States, a new study found that over the past 40 years, the number of wildfires throughout the state of California have actually declined.

Researcher Jon Keeley, a fire ecologist, hopes to soon discover the reason why. “Maybe fire prevention strategies or [it] could be related to climate,” he told the Orange County Register. “My guess is they would probably like to think it is increasing efficiency in fire prevention, but remains to be seen if that is the answer at this point.”

Photo credit: National Park Service

75 comments

joan silaco
joan s3 days ago

TYFS

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Pat P
Pat Pabout a month ago

I have always felt so bad for rabbits, both domestic and wild. Next to chickens, they are one of the most abused animals on this planet. They are prey for many species, including so-called humans; the subjects of the many countries that still use them in very cruel testing (in the U.S., although less)--What is particularly reprehensible about animal studies is that rabbits have nothing much in common with humans and non-animal methods are available and superior-- so they are mostly just senseless sacrifices of horrific cruelty; overbred/needless hybrids; defenseless against most species; frequent victims of animal cruelty/abandonment; poor survival rate in catastrophes of any kind

It is, especially, sad because most species of rabbits are sweet, gentle, and affectionate, although many are shy.

I worry about all animals, pets and wildlife, alike. Yet, farm animals are, particularly, at risk during fires. I have read of too many tragedies where barns have burned down. There have been no sprinkler systems (should be mandatory) and the poor animals have not been released/relocated, so that they, at least, have a chance of survival, instead of burning to death in terror. It is inexcusable for humans to have animals and not provide protections and safety, in every responsible way.

What is more egregious: the percentage that are negligently or intentionally begun by humans!

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heather g
heather gabout a month ago

Wildlife animals are mostly survivors but farm animals are the real concern

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Jennifer H
Jennifer H1 months ago

Coyotes can have a more diverse diet than other animals I would think. Maybe that is part of their success.

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bob Petermann
bob P1 months ago

Thanks for the article

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Greta H
Greta H1 months ago

thank you

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Georgina M
Georgina M2 months ago

tyfs

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Telica R
Telica R2 months ago

Thanks for sharing

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Julie D
Julie D2 months ago

I always worry about the wildlife and what happens to them in wildfire situations. It is part of the great tragedy of wildfires.

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David P
David P2 months ago

tyfs

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