USDA Forest Service

Pacific Southwest Research Station

Pacific Southwest
Research Station

800 Buchanan Street
Albany, CA 94710-0011
(510) 883-8830
United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service. USDA logo which links to the department's national site. Forest Service logo which links to the agency's national site.

Research Topics Fire Science

Terrestrial wildlife response to a burned landscape

An owl is perched on a rock with trees and vegetation in the background
An owl perched among the rocks and vegetation after the 2012 Chips Fire.

Wildland ecosystems are continually changing across the landscape and over time. While fire changes forest conditions, sometimes quite dramatically, wildlife species have evolved within this ecological system of periodic disturbance and change in habitat.  Some species thrive with change brought about by fire.  However the size and severity of fires in recent decades have resulted in significant changes in habitat across large areas.  As managers contemplate restoration efforts they must include considerations for habitat used by many different species.

Wildlife management and conservation efforts originally focused on selected individual species (e.g. game species or endangered species) and protecting and restoring vulnerable and limited habitats such as high-elevation meadows and riparian zones. To address restoration of habitat after fire, management orientation must shift from a focus on particular areas of habitat to consider the larger landscape encompassing those habitats. Management of static, confined units of habitat is futile in the face of constant change resulting from a multitude of disturbances such as periodic fire. Thus there has been a shift towards a more comprehensive wildlife community conservation approach that accommodates the dynamic nature of ecosystems and what that does to provide habitat for the full complement of species found in a region.

For example, recent large, high intensity wildfires eliminated nesting areas for spotted owls in the Sierra Nevada despite policies intended to protect those habitats and has raised concerns about the long-term sustainability of old-growth protected areas in the absence of management. Conserving the diversity of fire-adapted terrestrial wildlife requires consideration of not only the diversity of habitat conditions that previously existed under a more natural fire regime but also the process that created them. Carefully crafted strategies that integrate forest restoration, managed wildfire, and fuel reduction treatments, such as the thinning of trees and prescribed burning, can be used to facilitate a more desirable and sustainable range of habitat conditions.

There is value for wildlife in the diversity of habitats created by wildfire and the critical elements required by the unique and relatively diverse wildlife community. Wildfires provide a unique opportunity to mold a landscape into the forest composition that will exist there for decades to come. Though the severity and scale of fires in the Sierra Nevada and elsewhere in the last few decades may exceed historic averages, there is little doubt that even the areas that burn at the highest severity support a unique and relatively diverse wildlife community. In fact, some of bird species declining in the Sierra reach their greatest abundance in severely burned areas where many habitat elements (e.g. snags, herbaceous understory, hardwoods) have been eliminated or degraded by past management actions.

More information: