Long-term, Wildfires have Positive Impacts for Wildlife

Steve Lightfoot, 512-389-4701, steve.lightfoot@tpwd.texas.gov

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AUSTIN—Despite the hardship endured by those closest to the recent wildfires, time will eventually illustrate the positive ecological role that fire plays. The scarring left by wildfires that consumed more than a million and a half acres in Texas so far this year will continue to fade, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologists; replaced eventually by a landscape in much healthier condition for wildlife.

How long the recovery will take depends on a lot of things, most importantly rain.

“Following sufficient rainfall, recovery of burned vegetation will be fairly rapid,” said Glen Gillman, one of TPWD’s Wildland Fire Program Leaders. “Wildlife species such as white-tailed deer will move back into burned areas. This may take longer in areas where brush species were hit hardest.”

Initial field assessments by TPWD biologists indicate minimal losses to wildlife populations from recent wildfires, although some mortality is to be expected during large scale fires, and plant communities are expected to recover over time. Individual ranches may see fewer animals until habitat conditions improve.

“Once rains come, forbs and grasses will respond quickly on most wildfire sites,” said Chip Ruthven, TPWD wildlife management area project leader in the Panhandle.  “Typically with spring fires warm-season grasses will respond better than forbs. Regrowth normally has a higher nutritive content and woody resprouts are more available for species such as white-tailed deer.

Big game animals, such as white-tailed deer and pronghorn antelope, are capable of evading fire, burrowing animals can seek refuge underground and birds fly out of harm’s way.

Even on ranches having high fences, deer usually can find an escape route. During a major fire that burned 95 percent of the high-fenced Chaparral Wildlife Management Area southwest of San Antonio in 2008, relatively few deer perished, according to David Synatzske, area manager on the Chap,

Three years later, Synatzske said deer densities on the Chaparral WMA are at record highs and other animals, such as javelina, have also rebounded.

“We have an overabundance of grass and we put cattle back on in February with the highest bid we have ever gotten for grazing rights,” he said. “The woody vegetation is coming back and the brush is back to a 6-7 foot level. Wildlife recovery has been extremely good, except for quail and we can’t blame that on the fire.”

The impacts to ground nesting bird species, like bobwhite quail and turkey, are tougher to project because nesting cover will take longer to recover. But, they do come back.

“Game bird species evolved with fire and have been observed actively feeding in recently burned areas,” noted Robert Perez, TPWD upland game bird program leader. “Seeds become easier to find not to mention the tasty toasted grasshoppers.”

Since the fires occurred during drought conditions, nesting attempts were already limited, suggested Jason Hardin, TPWD turkey program biologist.

“The majority of Rio Grande turkeys will not even attempt to nest during drought conditions considering it a better option to put their energy into surviving until the possibility of success is higher in subsequent years,” Hardin explained.  “That said, on a year like this, if a hen decided to take a shot at nesting and if a nest was lost to a wildfire then I doubt the hen would re-nest. In good years like 2010 a Rio Grande turkey may re-nest several times as long as they have the energy and the temperatures do not get too hot.”

Biologists suggest the greatest impacts from the fires will be to reptiles and insect populations, both of which are capable of making rapid recoveries.

“Fires are a normal and natural process,” said Matt Wagner, TPWD Wildlife Division deputy director. “Wildlife, and the habitats they depend on, has evolved with fire and, in the long-term, the effect of fires is generally positive.”

Time, rest and rain are the key elements to recovery.