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In the western US, summer wildfires have become a common part of life. Extreme wildfire events have increased dramatically over the past few decades and are expected to increase another 14 percent by 2030. A new study shows that these fires not only change forest landscapes but impact the behavior of animals themselves. 

Source: National Geographic/YouTube

To uncover the impacts of wildfires on ecosystems, a team of researchers from the University of Washington examined how mule deer use forests that have burned and how these fires affect deer interactions with their primary predators, cougars, and wolves

They found that deer tend to use burned areas frequently in the summer – fallen trees and other rubble provide them with cover from predators. In the winter, however, deer tend to avoid burned areas. Without leafy branches from trees laid bare by fire, snow falls unhindered and is often deeper than in unburned forests. This prevents deer from feeding, and the deep snow makes it difficult for them to outrun predators.

The population of predators also affects how deer use burnt forests. In areas with high cougar populations, deer use burned areas less frequently. Cougars hunt by stalking and ambushing prey, so the fallen trees from burned areas play to their advantage. 

In areas with high wolf populations, by contrast, deer use the burnt forests often. Wolves hunt by chasing their prey over long distances, a strategy that works best over open terrain, so the cover offered by burned areas provides deer with an upper hand.

In addition to short-term impacts on animal behavior, wildfires also have long-term effects on animals and ecosystems. After a fire, vegetation generally grows back more densely, creating the ultimate feeding ground for deer and other herbivores. As plant-eaters thrive, predators also prosper, and the entire forest ecosystem benefits. 

“Our research suggests that in fire-affected areas, scientists and land managers who want to predict how burns could affect wildlife need to account for interactions between species,” says Taylor Ganz, a wildlife ecologist involved in the study. “As policymakers debate suppressing wildfires, treating forests to reduce fuels and logging after fires, I believe they should consider how these strategies will affect wildlife – a key part of biodiverse, resilient landscapes.”

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