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Fairbanks Department of Fish and Game discusses wildfire environmental impact

The Fairbanks Department of Fish and Game explains how wildfires impact wildlife for better and...
The Fairbanks Department of Fish and Game explains how wildfires impact wildlife for better and for worse.(ktvf)
Published: Jul. 19, 2021 at 3:33 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - With wildfire season still in effect, the Department of Fish and Game is offering some insight on how wildfires affect wildlife in the Interior.

According to Tom Paragi, a Wildlife Biologist with the Fairbanks Department of Fish and Game, fires can be either be beneficial or devastating depending on the conditions. “The main effect of fire is on the vegetation that the animals use for their habitat. Some people have a perception that fire is bad or it kills off the forest, but it’s a natural part of disturbance. What happens after fires typically is the vegetation grows back in different ways depending on how the fire went through. Fires in early spring tend to go on the surface when the ground is still saturated with snow melt, so the roots of shrubs and trees typically stay alive and you still have a seed bed inside from which the plants can sprout.”

However, fires that occur during more dry seasons can have more negative outcome, according to Paragi. “Fires that occur in the middle of the summer when the ground is drier can sometimes burn deeper into the organic layer of the soil. That’s referred to as fire severity, and what that does is it can kill off the roots of the shrubs and burn up the seeds. So then you have to regenerate more from a primary succession. The seeds have to come and be brought in by animals or be blown in by the wind.”

As for animal life, according to Paragi most animals are able to move away and avoid fires. “Typically the fire doesn’t move so fast that it just rolls over the animals, so animals can move out of the way - adult birds can fly, moose and caribou can walk away, small mammals can go into burrows into the soil. Nestlings that are in trees may die in the fire, but the adults typically will get away and survive.”

And as plant life returns in stages, so too do various animals.

“Small mammals will generally be affected early after the fire because some of the first things back are grass and fireweed. So you typically see an increase in small voles or mice right after burns, and then things that feed on them - raptors, owls, marten, weasels and things like that that hunt small mammals. Over time as shrubs come back and young trees, some species like snowshoe hares and moose will tend be found more in those areas, then in turn their predators will be found there. Great horned owls, goshawks, lynx, and foxes will feed on snowshoe hares, and of course wolves in the wintertime will feed on moose. People have taken advantage of that as well. Many hunters that are experienced with being in the boreal forest will see where recent burns are, or things like timber sales where you see regeneration of shrubs that are attractive to moose. So people have a strong interest in it,” Paragi explained.

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