Fire seasons are getting worse and longer, and humans aren’t the only ones affected. When the forest burns, what happens to its inhabitants?
All eyes turned to the west in 2018 as a series of large wildfires ripped through California, scorching a swath of forest and chaparral larger than Delaware. The season would eventually become the worst in California’s history, claiming more than 100 human lives and destroying upwards of 17,000 homes.
People weren’t the only creatures pushed around by the fires. Bears and other wildlife that call those regions home were suddenly displaced as well. And with fire seasons gradually increasing in intensity, that exodus may be a glimpse of things to come.
Wildfires are not a new phenomenon to wildlife. Bears, cougars, and other creatures have dealt with blazes as long as those species have existed. With that in mind, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that bears have pretty good instincts when it comes to evading the flames, even with the growing intensity and frequency of modern blazes.
Should a wildfire begin burning in a bear’s home range, it will usually walk or run out of the path of the flames. When possible, they often stay close by: During the 2012 High Park Fire near Fort Collins, Colorado, one radio-collared bear whose home range fell in the burning area stayed about a mile or two south of the fire, said Mark Vieira, manager of Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s carnivore and furbearer program.
“It was just a very small but detectable movement to use the part of her home range that was not literally on fire, but a mile or two from the boundary,” he said. “During the fire and then even post-fire, she just used the unburned habitat on the southern edge of her range, but she never left her greater summer home range.”
However, even those small displacements can lead to conflict as the bears search out new food sources. With so many mountain communities nestled in bear habitats, Viera said, residents could expect to see more bruins along roads and towns during those kinds of tough times. But there’s no data to suggest that fires brings waves of bears running into town.
Outdoor enthusiasts who recreate around burn areas may find that bears are more visible after a wildfire because the animals are in unfamiliar territory, said Brad Weinmeister, a CPW wildlife biologist out of Durango. When possible, they prefer to forage natural food sources that keep them out of the way of humans.
“Bears are always hungry,” Weinmeister said. “They’re like a teenager in a growth spurt. As long as there are good food sources out in the wild, they’re going to use that resource.”
When they get desperate, however, bruins may take more drastic measures. Victoria Monroe, statewide conflict programs coordinator for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said stressed bears may be attracted to easy food sources in the wake of a wildfire. It’s extra important for backpackers and hikers, as well as full-time locals, to take extra precautions to avoid attracting bears to their campsites or homes. Most problem bears get into trouble after becoming habituated to people habituated to people, so it’s best to double and triple check that they won’t find it near you.
The good news: Even though bears are on the move more after a wildfire, hikers, bikers, runners and other outdoor enthusiasts don’t need to avoid their favorite trails while things cool off.
“You’re probably already in bear habitat anyway,” Vieira said. “So, whether there was a fire five miles away or not, you’re in their habitat one way or the other. Has the bear density changed minutely up in the area you are because you’ve got a couple displaced individuals? We could speculate on that.”
If you’re in a burned area a year or two or so after the fact, you’ll likely have a better chance than usual to see bears as they return to feast on the shrubs, berries, and grasses that spring up in disturbed areas.
There are few places in the United States where this regrowth happens faster than the Pacific Northwest, thanks to lots of moisture in the air. Richard Beausoleil, a bear and cougar specialist with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said bears’ wide range in diet helps them adapt after a fire. In addition to plants, they’ll also go for insects, carcasses and sometimes small mammals.
During this time of rapid regrowth, he recommends carrying a whistle on the trails and blowing it every few minutes to avoid any surprise encounters with large predators.
“There may be pockets of habitat that provide better food sources than others at certain times of the year, so hikers should simply pay attention and know that thicker brush may increase the likelihood of use by bears,” he said.
He also noted that the western side of the Cascade Crest in Washington sees significantly more rain than the east sides, so that regrowth may vary in speed and density.
“Bears and outdoor enthusiasts have coexisted for generations and I have no reason to assume this will change,” Beausoleil said. “Humans simply need to respect the space of bears and other wildlife, avoid a surprise encounter — which is easy to do — and pay attention to their surroundings and learn which habitats are more likely to be occupied. That’s part of the fun and the exhilaration of being a guest in the great outdoors.”