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What Happens to Wildlife When a Massive Wildfire Tears Through a Landscape?

When wildfires were smaller and more frequent in the past, they helped to maintain the balance of ecosystems throughout the West. However, scientists are unsure how animals are coping with today's unprecedented megafires, which have burned more than a million acres in a single day. Almost a century of fire suppression, combined with climate change, has resulted in wildfires that are larger and more severe than any that have occurred in recorded history.

Scientists from the Universities of Washington, Berkeley, and Santa Barbara were able to track a group of black-tailed deer during and after the 2018 Mendocino Complex Fire, which was California's third-largest wildfire in terms of area burned. The massive wildfire that scorched more than 450,000 acres in northern California burned through half of an established study site, allowing researchers to track deer movements and feeding patterns prior to, during, and after the fire. Researchers are tracking deer movements and feeding patterns prior to, during, and after the fire. On October 28, 2021, the findings of the study were published in the journal Ecology and Evolution.

UC Santa Barbara postdoctoral researcher Kaitlyn Gaynor and co-lead author Kaitlyn Gaynor discuss their findings in the journal Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. "We don't know much about what animals do while wildfires are burning or in the days following," said Gaynor, who is also a co-lead author. During the wildfire and immediately afterwards, when the landscape was still desolate, we were fortunate enough to be able to observe what these animals were up to.

When they discovered what they did, the researchers were taken aback. All 18 deer that were examined were found to be alive. Although some areas of the landscape were completely burned and devoid of edible vegetation, deer who were forced to flee the flames eventually returned to their homes. Despite the fact that the majority of deer returned to their grazing grounds within hours of the fire, the trees continued to burn.

When studying how animals respond to extreme and unpredictable events such as megafires, it is uncommon to have access to this location data, which is derived from previously placed wildlife cameras and GPS collars.

"Attempts to understand the immediate and short-term responses of animals to wildfires have been made in only a handful of studies. A fire that sweeps through and dramatically alters the landscape is underappreciated and absent from the published literature when it occurs in the first instance "Samantha Kreling, a doctoral student at the University of Washington's School of Environmental and Forest Sciences and a co-lead author on the study, explained how it came to be.

A black-tailed deer movement study was conducted northwest of Sacramento at the University of California's Hopland Research and Extension Center, where researchers were looking into the patterns of movement of the deer. Prior to the onset of the Mendocino Complex Fire, the team collared 18 deer and placed several dozen motion-activated wildlife cameras throughout the area to monitor wildlife activity.

On July 27, 2018, the Hopland-based research team noticed smoke in the area and reported it to the authorities. Within hours, they were told to leave the property and not to return because large flames had engulfed it and were spreading. The Mendocino Complex Fire, which was California's most destructive wildfire at the time, destroyed slightly more than half of the research center's land in total.

When Kreling realized she needed data from the site for her senior undergraduate thesis at the University of California, Berkeley, she made the decision to pivot — or, as one of her collaborators put it, "make lemonade out of lemons." By contrast, Kreling and co-authors investigated how deer alter their spatial use during and immediately after large disturbances such as wildfires, and the impact of this event on their body condition and survival.

I was curious about what it would be like for animals living on the land to deal with repercussions of such an event after witnessing the dramatic changes to the landscape," Kreling explained. It was possible to compare what happened before and what happened after because of the infrastructure in place.

However, despite the difficulties associated with having insufficient food, all of the deer returned within a short period of time after the fire. In order to find green vegetation, deer living in burned areas had to work harder and travel farther, which resulted in a decline in body condition in several of the animals studied by the researchers. While this species has likely survived previous wildfires, their attachment to their home is a survival strategy that has likely aided them in surviving other fires.

In the future, it is unclear whether this strategy of home loyalty will be beneficial or detrimental to the team's performance. However, while smaller wildfires encourage new vegetation growth — which deer enjoy — larger wildfires have the potential to destroy seed banks, reducing the amount of plants available for deer to consume. Specifically, some deer that were forced to expand their home range in order to find food did so at the expense of their physical health in this instance.

According to Gaynor, "These deer have evolved a behavioral strategy that has clearly worked for them. The big question is whether this strategy will continue to work as fires become more intense and frequent, trapping animals in habitats that are experiencing massive disturbances on a scale that has never been seen before in their evolutionary history."

As the authors point out, the patterns observed in these deer are unlikely to be generalized to other large mammals found in a variety of habitats throughout the world. However, it is an intriguing case study for examining the effects of extreme disturbances, such as large wildfires, on animals, and one that should be investigated further. Kendall Calhoun, a doctoral student at UC Berkeley, is continuing his research into the long-term effects of the fire on the health and reproductive capacity of this population of deer, which is still being tracked by the researchers.

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