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Game & Fish

Lasting impacts of the Jackson Canyon Fire

10/01/2006 - As the last embers flicker out from the Jackson Canyon fire, we are left with a landscape that looks starkly different than it did prior to Aug. 14. It is devastated. Destroyed. Nothing but charred, skeletal remain where magnificent pine trees used to stand. An area that once provided the necessary habitat elements for wildlife now stands burnt and barren. The only things that seem to remain are dead trees, ash, and rock.

But is it really as bad as it looks? What actually happens to the landscape and the wildlife during and following a wildfire?

Jackson Canyon (click for larger version)
Sadly, some wild animals do die in forest fires. And large, intense wildfires, especially those that get into the forest crown, will kill more wildlife than smaller fires. Animals that are able to flee a fire are often stressed and tired as a result. Such stress can make them more vulnerable to other environmental threats such as accidents or predation.

But while some individual animals may perish, populations and communities of wildlife are rarely threatened by wildfire.

Most burrowing animals such as marmots and ground squirrels will wait out a fire underground, while big game animals such as deer and elk usually have time to escape. With the Jackson Canyon fire occurring late in summer as it did, the young of the year (baby wildlife) are big enough to flee the flames and resulting toxic smoke. And most young birds are fledged by this time of year, allowing them to fly away from danger.

So if many of the wild animals are able to survive a fire, what becomes of them once the danger has passed? Will they return to the disfigured remains of their home ranges? If so, where will they live? What will they eat?

Many wild animals will move out of the area and establish new home ranges. Others will return to the area next spring to find a changed environment. And those changes are not all bad.

Fire burns off excessive brush and trees and allows for growth of vegetation favorable to wildlife. Fire also creates a mixture or mosaic of habitats across the landscape, which means greater wildlife diversity. They also leave discontinuous fuel source, which can slow or prevent the spread of future wildfires.

Some plant species, such as aspen and especially many native perennial grasses, grow from root systems that are rarely damaged by wildfire. Other plant species, such as lodgepole pine, are actually fire dependent and need the heat of a fire to open their cones and spread their seeds.

By next spring, many of the wild animals that fled the Jackson Canyon fire will eventually return to find edible vegetation where before only pine trees thrived. Some species may even return sooner, as burned trees provide good habitat for woodpeckers and other cavity nesters.

Aspen may also return to the face of Casper Mountain, providing tremendous habitat benefits for wildlife. Aspen require a lot of sunlight, and with the removal of canopy cover by pines young aspen can thrive.

So while the fire was indeed horrendous at the time its long-term impacts for wildlife far outweigh the short-term habitat losses. And the burned areas of Casper Mountain will again provide homes for many of Wyoming's magnificent wild animals.

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