Researchers still hazy on effect of intense wildfires on California wildlife | Courthouse News Service
Thursday, November 30, 2023
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Researchers still hazy on effect of intense wildfires on California wildlife

The unprecedented intensity of wildfires in past years means scientists are still unsure how animals like gray owls and wolverines will fare in the future.

(CN) — Wildfire season is notoriously bad in California, but 2020 to 2021 was particularly awful. At the end of year, almost 10,000 different fires killed dozens of people and burned over four million acres of land, including the habitats of a number of protected animals. According to new research published Monday, each species whose habitats were destroyed responded to the fire differently. 

Focusing on the wildfires in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in the eastern and northeastern parts of California and the Klamath Mountains in the northwest, researchers studied how the devastating fires affected the habitats of over 600 animal that live in the area, ultimately focusing on 100 species that were most adversely affected.

Some 16 of those animals affected by the fires, including gray owls, northern rubber boas, Pacific martens and wolverines, are listed as "special status" animals who scientists and regulators have concerns about their ability to survive and thrive in their habitats.

Although the fires in those areas burned 10 times more acreage than most other fires in state history — killing 75% to 100% of vegetation on the forest floor in some areas, including a quarter of the gray owls’ habitat — what that means specifically for animal populations is still an open ended question. 

“We don’t know what it means in the long term because we’ve never seen this kind of impact before,” said Gavin Jones, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station, and a co-author of the study.

There’s no question that there are some benefits to some species of animals, including gray owls, when there are periodic low level fires. Fires can even be “restorative,” Jones said. Usually the scale and intensity of the kinds of fires that take out whole swaths of trees like California saw in the 2021 to 2021 are usually not good for biodiversity, but the sheer heat and destructiveness of the fires was so unique, that past research of how fire affects the habitats of animals might not apply to those fires, he added.   

Some of the research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, focused on whether or not the "special status" species of animals were more affected by the fires than average species. Their research found that the "most threatened "special status" species were actually a little less affected than their less threatened peers. Whether that’s because the "special status" species were living in better refuges from the fire is still an open question.  

“Our intent was to take a broad look, airplane versus a bird’s eye view, to gain a better understanding of the impacts of these kinds of fires on wildlife habitat as a whole,” wrote Jessalyn Ayars, an applied ecology for wildlife research fellow at the University of New Mexico, and the lead author of the study, in a statement.

One of the reasons the study’s findings are so open ended, Jones said, is because the researchers who worked on it hope that it will spur more scientists to study wildfires' effects on specific animal species.

Categories / Environment, Science

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