When a massive wildfire tears through a landscape, what happens to the animals?
While many animals have adapted to live with wildfires of the past — which were smaller, more frequent and kept ecosystems in balance across the West — it’s unclear to scientists how animals are coping with today’s unprecedented megafires. More than a century of fire suppression coupled with climate change has produced wildfires that are now bigger and more severe than before.
After California’s 3rd-largest wildfire, deer returned home while trees were ‘still smoldering’
California has gone through several difficult fire seasons in recent years. Now, some cities are investing in unconventional fire prevention methods, including deers.
Anaheim, a city southeast of Los Angeles, has recently re-upped its contract with the company Environmental Land Management to keep deers grazing on city hillsides nearly year-round.
The researchers were surprised by what they learned. Of the 18 deer studied, all survived. Deer that had to flee the flames returned home, despite some areas of the landscape being completely burned and void of vegetation to eat. Most of the deer returned home within hours of the fire, while trees were still smoldering.
From a sunbaked peak in the Puente Hills Preserve, the panorama stretches from the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles to the edge of the fog-blanketed Pacific Ocean. In between, rolling green and brown hills are dappled yellow with blooming black mustard, an invasive plant that poses a mounting threat in California.
The specific patterns observed with these deer likely can’t be applied to other large mammals in different regions, the authors said. But it’s an interesting case study to explore what extreme disturbances, like large wildfires, might mean for animals. Meanwhile, co-author Kendall Calhoun, a doctoral student at UC Berkeley, is continuing to look at the long-term effects of the fire on the health and reproductive capacity of this population of deer, which is still being tracked.