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

Fire and wildlife

A black-backed woodpecker close up on a snag
Black-backed woodpecker foraging for wood-boring beetle larvae in a snag. Photo by Ryan Burnett, Point Blue Conservation Science.

Fire can not only have immediate impact on wildlife by causing injury and mortality, but it can also have long-term effects by altering the availability of food and shelter when vegetation structure and composition change due to fire. However, some wildlife communities in California and other western U.S. forests have been shown to be well-adapted to fire.

Historically, mixed-severity fire created a mosaic of different habitat conditions (e.g., snags, shrubs, and forbs in recently burned areas; young forests; dense forests in more shaded, wetter conditions; old forests that have survived repeated fires) across the landscape. These conditions changed over space and time as fire occurred altered forest structure. In the mixed-conifer forests of the Sierra Nevada, low- to mixed-severity fires typically consumed surface fuels and killed small and susceptible trees. Occasional, high severity fire would kill all the trees in an area, which drastically modified existing habitat but renewed the development of a new, young forest.

The patches of different vegetation conditions created by fire support a diversity of species. Following fire, large mammals like deer or bears can benefit from the short-term increase in the quality and quantity of herbaceous plants and shrubs. Populations of small mammals, such as mice, ground squirrels, and chipmunks, often increase following fire and are important prey for other species. Woodpeckers feed on an abundance of wood-boring insects that are attracted to the dead and dying trees that often result from fire.

By contrast, some species such as flying squirrels, goshawks, and golden crowned kinglets tend to use the older, denser, multi-layered forests that have persisted through many fire cycles. Other species use both conditions for different portions of their life history. For example, spotted owls and American marten nest/den and feed in dense forest but also find food along edges of forests and in openings.

Decades of fire exclusion and other forest practices have contributed to a reduction in fire-created habitat and some of the associated wildlife. Given current forest fuels and vegetation conditions, together with scientists' projections of a warmer and drier climate, forest managers are concerned about more frequent and larger high-severity fires in the future. While some species, such as the various species of woodpeckers, may benefit from the many patches of dead trees that are predicted under future fire scenarios, more frequent and less severe fires would provide a more sustainable supply of habitat for many species of wildlife.

Management considerations

Wildlife management and conservation efforts previously focused on selected individual species (e.g., game species or endangered species) and activities to protect and restore vulnerable and limited habitats, such as high-elevation meadows and riparian zones. Management must now consider the larger landscape encompassing those habitats in the face of constant change resulting from a multitude of disturbances, including periodic fire. A more comprehensive wildlife community conservation approach can accommodate the dynamic nature of ecosystems that provide habitat for species found across a regional area.

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