Fort McMurray blaze could rejuvenate animal habitats, experts say

May 16, 2016

By: The Globe and Mail

Images of the fire-ravaged landscape around Fort McMurray have prompted some nature lovers to question what will become of the area’s wildlife. But specialists across the environmental field say the animals are probably not only fine, but may even thrive in the after-effects of the wildfire.

The Alberta Institute for Wildlife Conservation responded to civilian concern on its Facebook page, saying the biggest risk for wildlife is smoke inhalation and quick-spreading fires, but that animals are “generally equipped to respond.”

According to Graham Currie, executive director of the Wildlife Rehabilitation Society of Edmonton, the sheer magnitude of the fire makes the suffering of some animals inevitable, but a lot have the resilience to cope.

“Wildfire is a natural part of the landscape,” Alberta wildfire information officer Travis Fairweather said. “Animals are pretty good at adapting to it.”

As of Thursday, Mr. Fairweather said, he had not received any reports of wild animals that appeared to have been unable to flee the fire.

In fact, he said wildfires actually rejuvenate animal habitats. “When you have thick undergrowth and thick canopy of trees that light can’t get through, it’s not great for animals,” he said.

Without light, the forest floor can become what Mr. Fairweather calls dead, rotten fuel. But when light comes in – after fire has burned the tops of trees, for example – the forest undergrowth becomes green, lush and alive. Burnt leaves and needles also turn into mineral-rich ash for the soil.

“[Fire] can refresh the area of the forest and create a livelier ecosystem,” he said. “It’s a natural part of the forest’s life cycle.”

Within a year, many animals will start moving back into the habitat, he said.

“It’s hard to think about because it’s such a powerful and devastating thing, but it’s actually pretty good for the animals in the long run,” he said. “It’s the natural way of things.”

Mr. Fairweather isn’t alone in his theory: Christine Godwin and Ken Foster of Owl Moon Environmental Inc., based in Fort McMurray, agree. “We’re coming out of a time when fire is considered to be bad,” Mr. Foster said. “What we’ve learned is that it has beneficial consequences as well.”

Ms. Godwin and Mr. Foster have worked in and around the oil sands since the mid-nineties. Despite the prevailing view that the oil sands have wiped out wildlife in the region, they say the development is surrounded by hundreds of different species of mammals, birds and fish that live in the boreal forest.

Black bears, Canada lynx and caribou are all common in the area.

The effect of the fire on wildlife depends on the species, with one of the more vulnerable being birds such as owls, which breed earlier in the season and may have been forced to leave their nests.

But the vast majority of mammals are able to survive fires, either by fleeing or taking cover. While small mammals like squirrels can burrow underground, amphibians can find refuge in wetlands.

Mr. Foster said forests burn, on average, every 80 years. Some trees are dependent on fire for rejuvenation, and if there is too much fire suppression, a lot of these tree species can become susceptible to disease.

“In general, the scientific and forest community are trying to find a balance between fire suppression and promotion of the regenerative cycle,” he said.“The boreal forest is a fire-adapted ecosystem. Many of the wildlife there have evolved living with forest fires.”

The best thing for humans to do at this point is to let nature run its course.

“We need to give nature a chance to recover on its own,” Ms. Godwin said. “Often when people interfere, we make it worse.”

Alberta Environment and Parks said it will be “conducting a wildlife survey to monitor wildlife and to take the necessary management actions to preserve wildlife habitat,” when it is safe to do so.

By: The Globe and Mail

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