Wildfires & Grizzlies – What Does a West Ablaze Mean for Bears?

With wildfire smoke from the west coast drifting east, there’s no question that the impact from wildfires is long-ranging. The telltale neon sunsets in Michigan and Maine are vivid proof that wildfires alter lives on a molecular level. And if the effects of fire can be so dramatic thousands of miles away, what does it do to the beings in the thick of it?

Bears Don’t Care

Well they do, just not in the short term. A study by Yvonne Barkley, a forester from the University of Idaho, Moscow, shows that animals don’t flee fire the way humans expect they will. Barkley uses as an example the iconic image of animals fleeing the forest in Bambi, but that’s just what humans think happens, and—inconvenient for us—that’s not always the case.

When fire ripped through the Greater Yellowstone area in 1988, no large animals were seen booking it out of there, but rather the contrary: they were going about their business—grazing and even resting—just a few hundred feet from burning trees.

What About Smokey Bear?

Smokey totally cares! When thinking about forest fires and bears together, the first bear that comes to mind is usually Smokey Bear. (It’s not Smokey the Bear, though lots of people think so.) Smokey was created in 1944 by the Ad Council and the U.S. Forest Service who teamed up to create a fictional bear as a symbol of forest fire prevention.

In his first poster, Smokey is pouring a bucket of water on a campfire, and the message—which has remained largely unchanged over seventy-six years—is that “Care will prevent 9 out of 10 fires.”

In 1950, Smokey went from an artist-rendered drawing to a real-life, orphaned bear cub who got stuck up a burned tree in New Mexico. The cub was rescued by firefighters and his burns were treated. His rescuers were so impressed by his tenacity that they named him Smokey. Smokey received so much attention—including letters and gifts of honey—that he was given his own zip code! Kids can still write to Smokey and receive fire prevention information in return. 

The West is Burning

Regardless of how much education and preparation is done, there will be forest fires. Fire isn’t all bad, and in some ways it’s necessary for plants to regenerate, but some years are extreme and 2020 is one of those years and the fire season isn’t over yet.

Wildfires affect us all, even those not living nearby. If you’re a person, wildfires destroy homes, interfere with trade, and impact agriculture. If you’re a wild animal, it’s not much different, and for both humans and animals there are two factors that come into play when considering the disruption of wild fire on our lives: speed and scale.

Animals have instincts that clue them in to danger, and they often sense fire coming in time to seek shelter in rivers and creek or under rocky outcropping. Some smaller animals even dig holes to wait out fire. When fires move in fast—usually due to low moisture content in vegetation—animals don’t always have time to prepare, but even more disruptive to wildlife is when fires destroy large swaths of their habitat.

Fires in Griz Country

In 1988, as a result of 18 lightening-caused fires,1.2 million acres burned in the greater Yellowstone Ecosystem with 800,000 acres burning within the park . For perspective, that is 36% of Yellowstone National Park’s total area, which is also known as a generous chunk of grizzly bear habitat.

Grizzlies received Endangered Species Act protection in 1975, when it’s estimated that the number of bears in the the Lower 48 had fallen precariously low, and while grizzlies are notoriously hard to count, it’s safe to assume the Yellowstone population was far from stable in 1988 when fire not only ripped into their house, but stayed awhile.

38 grizzlies were wearing radio transmitters, and while one female was missing from radar for two years, only one female was never located again after the fires ended. While it’s said that the 1988 didn’t significantly impact grizzlies, it’s hard to believe when taking into consideration that 28% of Yellowstone’s white bark pine burned in those fires.

White bark pine seeds are a significant part of the grizzly bear’s diet as evidenced by a study that showed that in areas with healthy white bark pine forests, fall scats contained 50-90% seeds. White bark pine seeds are important to the grizzly because they “are a high-energy food rich in fats, carbohydrates, and protein. This makes them a sought-after resource for bears fattening up in the fall before denning.

Nothing Happens in Isolation

Grizzly bears are a keystone species and while that ranks them on the top of the food chain, they do not exist in isolation up there. Grizzlies’ survival actually relies on much smaller animals, for example the red squirrel, who helps them harvest the white bark pine cones and seeds, which “are indehiscent, which means they do not split open to scatter seeds when mature.”

The white bark pine is also considered a keystone species and is “an important food source for more than 110 animal species.”

In laymen’s terms, the white bark pine—like the grizzly bear—is kind of a big deal.

Actually, It’s All a Big Deal

In the summer and fall of 2000, when almost 7 million acres burned in the United States, 2.2 millions of those acres in Idaho and Montana. The only thing that put the fires out that year was snow and fires burned in all six grizzly bear recovery zones. Even though fire is an integral part of forest health in the west, because western forests aren’t allowed to burn naturally, they now burn out of control.

Figuring out the impact of fire on grizzlies isn’t just about how many acres burned, how much habitat was lost, or how much of their food sources incinerated. It’s about those things, sure.

But we have to pan out and look at our forests and the beings who inhabit them through a macro lens. When thinking about the impact of forest fires on grizzlies and other wildlife, we need to consider the humans impact on the planet.

This isn’t happening to us, as humans. We created this. But it is happening to grizzlies as a result of us and our choices from where we choose to live to how we treat the planet. The good news is, we can do something about it.

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