Volume No. 18 Issue No. 1 January 2021  

  Worried recent wildfires are hurting wild animals?
  Here are all the reasons fire is good for wildlife.
  District Wildlife Manager, CPW

     Aaron Berscheid is a district wildlife officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Aaron covers the “wild” side of Northeast El Paso County, including Black Forest, Falcon, Peyton and Calhan. He also covers some of Elbert County, north of U.S. Highway 24 and south of State Highway 86, including the towns of Elbert, Kiowa, Ramah, Simla, Matheson and a small portion of the Limon area.

   Those of you who have lived here for several years likely will never forget the Black Forest Fire in June 2013. Not to mention other fires like the Waldo Canyon Fire in June 2012 and the Hayman Fire in June 2002.
   How could you ever forget those towering pillars of smoke and ash that loomed so ominously over the entire county and our coveted community? Remember how it burned for nine long days and how much destruction was caused –- especially the two lives lost –- in such a short time?
   We were all reminded this fall just how destructive wildfires can be as we watched massive blazes roar across northern Colorado and into Rocky Mountain National Park.
   Once again, we saw the devastating impact these fires can have on our communities. I feel for the families and individuals affected by these fires. My thoughts and prayers go out to them.
   Every time we see fires like these develop, I always get the same question: “How do large wildfires affect our wildlife?”
   This is a great question. To understand the answer, we have to examine wildfire behavior and some basic wildlife management principles. 
   I don’t claim to be an expert on wildfires. But I’ve learned a few things over the years and there are a couple points that will help us understand how fire can impact wildlife. 
   Each fire is different. And fire doesn’t burn with the same intensity across every acre it affects. Different zones or areas of a fire will burn with different severities. For a variety of reasons, fire does not burn evenly through the landscape. Factors influencing its intensity include the availability of oxygen, fuel and heat in each specific location. 
   Some areas will experience a creeping fire that is not very intense while another area may have a fire that scorches everything in its path into ash, from entire trees to the top layer of soil. Meanwhile, other nearby areas may not be burned at all.
   This is an interesting phenomenon that ultimately creates edge habitat for wildlife. And it’s why we often say that wildfire is good for wildlife.
   Edge habitat is where one type of habitat meets another. For example, an edge habitat occurs when a tree line of a forest meets a grassy open meadow. Edge habitat is important for wildlife, especially our big game species. These areas allow them to stay close to cover and safety, like a thick forested area, while getting food or water in a meadow. 
   The Black Forest area gets its name from the Ponderosa pines that dominate the area. When seen at a distance, they appear black in color compared to the spruce and Lodgepole pine forests in the mountains. Ponderosa pine forests, historically, are very open grasslands with sparse old-growth trees and small sparse stands of new growth trees. The very definition of edge habitat.
   These forests would remain that way for long periods of time due to fires that would periodically move through the area, cleaning up the undergrowth without affecting the tops of the trees. With the small amount of fuel and the lack of ladder fuels or multi-aged trees that allow the fire to climb to the tops of the trees, these fires were historically low in heat and slow burning or creeping fires.
   Over time, with the removal of fire from the landscape and limited tree harvest, the Black Forest area became overgrown with lots of fuel and multi-aged stands that were thick and overgrown, creating what are called ladder fuels. These fuels allowed the fire to reach the crowns of the forest and burn at high intensity.
   Guess where I see the most deer now in the Black Forest area?
   Around the edges of the burn scar where the understory grasses were rejuvenated near the cover needed by the deer.
   As a general rule, the only way to have more and healthier wildlife populations is to have more and healthier habitat. So, in next month’s article, I will describe how fire affects wildlife directly while it is occurring, and indirectly through habitat change.
   And I’ll include fascinating details of new research by CPW biologists who tracked elk equipped with radio collars during the recent fires up north. I was pretty surprised by the findings, and I think you will be, too.
   As always, if you’ve got a question, problem or column idea, please email me at aaron.berscheid@state.co.us or call me at 719-227-5231. 
   I might even answer your question in a future installment of “Wildlife Matters.”
Photo submitted
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