Wildlife & Wildfire: How Nature Makes the Most of Fire

Few things are more frightening than wildfire. Anyone who’s found themselves too close for comfort, or even witnessed large wildfires from afar, can probably attest to a feeling of dread in that moment. Yet, wildfire is a natural part of life and the natural world, and it plays a critical role in maintaining healthy ecosystems.

flames consume a stand of trees in a forest fire
Whitewater-Baldy Complex wildfire in Gila National Forest, New Mexico (2012). Photo by Kari Greer/USFS

When we see the hot, red and orange flames of a raging wildfire, it can be easy to focus on the destruction that comes with such an intense demonstration of nature’s power. Yet even in the wake of destructive natural cycles, many plants and wildlife show us enduring resilience. While uncontrolled wildfire can threaten human health and safety, our natural world has evolved with fire and it can be a catalyst for important changes by removing invasive plants, restoring natural habitats, and contributing to the natural carbon cycle that helps to maintain stable and livable global climates.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Fire Management Program works to achieve the benefits of fires for wildlife and habitats, while combating fires that endanger human health and safety. Our firefighters use prescribed burns to mimic natural fires in a safe and controlled setting to cultivate healthy natural habitats that support native plants and wildlife. They also focus on preventative measures to reduce the threats wildfires pose to communities near where human property meets undeveloped wildland vegetation, such as forests or swamps. Click to learn about wildlife and the role of prescribed fire, and how the Service uses prescribed fire to improve habitat and save wildlife.

Most ecosystems benefit from fire after the flames are extinguished, and plant and animal species begin to regenerate. Some wildlife even take advantage of wildfires while flames are still active. Join us on a visual tour across the United States as we explore how different kinds of wildlife have adapted to living with fire, how wildfires affect the natural world, and how you can help wildlife by maintaining healthy ecosystems.

Mississippi kite flying in a blue sky
Mississippi Kite by Texas Eagle. Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Mississippi kites have found the perfect opportunity to score some grub. “In Oklahoma, the Mississippi kite would hover near the head and flanks of the fires just to catch the grasshoppers that were flying to get away from the heat. It seemed as soon as they saw our smoke, they converged on the burn unit,” says Mike Granger, a Service firefighter with over 30 years of experience on the front lines of wildfire management and wildlife conservation.

“I’ve also seen various raptors hunting in front of our fires to catch rodents as they escape the flames. Geese will fly right back into a burn unit to eat the young green sprouts of grass that were exposed as a result of the fire,” he adds. And it’s not just birds: “In Montana, I’ve seen antelope walk right by my vehicle to eat cacti that had their needles burned off. How they knew it was OK to eat cacti after a fire still amazes me, but they did.”

Nature is incredibly resilient. In the ashes of a wildfire, signs of new life and revival are not far behind.

Mule deer licking its snout
Mule deer by Ryan Moehring/USFWS

In the western United States, black-backed woodpeckers are often called “burned forest specialists” because of their ability to thrive in habitats created by large-scale disturbances, namely fire. Christine Jordan, a Service biologist at the Yreka Fish and Wildlife Ecological Services Office in California, explains: After a fire, the many species of roundheaded and flatheaded wood-boring beetles have an easier time infesting trees that are dead or dying from the fire. “Healthy trees are more resilient to wood-boring beetles, but drought, disease, and fire weaken trees and allow for higher levels of beetle infestation. After a forest burns, wood-boring beetles tend to colonize at higher numbers in the burned area and deposit large amounts of eggs in the burned trees. These beetles essentially ‘follow fire’, and the woodpeckers follow the beetles, feeding primarily on their larvae.” And, as an extra bonus for the clever birds, “fire can also create snags that are used by black-backed woodpeckers for nesting.”

Black-backed woodpecker perched on the side of a tree trunk
Female black-backed woodpecker by Mike Laycock/NPS

Black-backed woodpeckers also pave the way for other species to return to the area by “providing cavities that enable occupancy and use of the burned forest by other species, which in turn contribute to a variety of ecosystem functions and services,” adds Stephanie Worley Firley from the U.S. Forest Service.

An Upland sandpiper bird stands tall over green grasses
Upland Sandpiper on Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge by Keith Ramos/USFWS

Greg Kramos, a private lands biologist for the Service, says that some shorebirds, such as upland sandpipers, need wildfire to clear invasive trees from tallgrass prairies in America’s Great Plains. “No fire, no upland sandpipers,” he says. “Restoring fire to grasslands is critical for migrating shorebird populations. Buff-breasted sandpipers and American golden plovers use burned pastures for food during migration.”

A bird with a white head and chest, black belly, face, and beak, and beige-black coloring on its back perches on a knoll
American golden plover by Gregory ‘Slobirdr’ Smith. Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Across the southeastern United States, gopher tortoises survive hot flames by hiding in burrows. They are also first on site to enjoy fresh, nutrient rich vegetation that emerges after a burn event.

Gopher tortoise on the ground surrounded by verdant vegetation.
Gopher tortoise by USFWS

Gopher tortoises are heavily dependent on sunlight for the grasses and vegetation they eat, as well as for maintaining their body temperature since they’re cold-blooded. When their habitats are overgrown with dense shrubs and trees, less sunlight reaches the ground. This reduces gopher tortoises’ food supply and their ability to create nests and stay warm. When fire is allowed to burn overgrowth, however, gopher tortoises benefit from the aftermath, as their habitats are restored to their natural balance.

Gopher tortoise hiding in underground burrow entrance
Gopher tortoise hole near a controlled burn site by Craig O’Neal. Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Meanwhile, threatened eastern indigo snakes and many other wildlife use the cool safety of gopher tortoise burrows during fire events. This temporary commingling is known as commensalism — where some wildlife benefit while others are neither helped nor harmed. Gopher tortoises are known as ecosystem engineers because their burrows support so many other wildlife and in turn, shape the natural environmental around them.

A person holds a snake which is blue-black and has large smooth scales
Threatened eastern indigo snake by Pete Pattavina/USFWS

Many ecosystems reset after a burn event, giving native plants much-needed space and time to recover — not just from the fire, but from potentially harmful overgrowth of invasive species and local native competition.

Without fire, habitats can become overgrown, creating more aggressive competition for resources such as space, water, and sunlight among native and non-invasive plants. Over time, unchecked overgrowth leads to a gradual transition of habitat, which may no longer be able to support native plants and wildlife. These types of events are happening in many prairies across the United States, as woodland areas and forests replace native grassland habitat.

North America’s prairies and grasslands are among the world’s most endangered habitats, due in large part to growth and spread of non-native grasses, shrubs, and trees. For native grasslands and prairies, fire is critical; without it, many endangered and threatened plants will experience accelerated habitat loss and could even go extinct.

Migratory birds, and a variety of other grassland-dependent wildlife, have declined dramatically since 1970. In that time, grassland birds have lost 53% of their populations in North America, a loss of over 700 million birds.

Certain land management practices, such as fire suppression, can allow non-native plants to push out key species that are vital for natural habitat conservation and preserving the carbon cycle to combat climate change. Without native grasses and vegetation to infuse soils with important nutrients, natural areas become less able to support native plant life and wildlife.

It’s not just birds, but bees and other pollinators that suffer the consequences of habitat loss and degradation due to fire suppression.

Karner blue butterfly on purple flower
Karner blue butterfly by USFWS.

The Karner blue butterfly is one insect that benefits from fire. Protected as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1992, this colorful insect is dependent on wild lupine plants for survival. Without natural fires, however, forests grow where the lupine once did, and the butterflies can’t survive.

The same scenario plays out for many pollinators, which rely on native flowers to survive. Without pollinators, agriculture and many other natural services upon which people rely will decline, affecting the economy, personal well-being, and the livelihood of local communities.

A fish with vibrant orange dots and fins along a streambed
A Dolly Varden rests on Campbell Creek’s streambed by Ryan Hagerty/USFWS

Fire also provides secondary benefits to natural areas. Aaron David, a former biologist with the Service’s Fisheries Program, has been studying the effects of wildfire smoke on water temperatures. “Smoke can have significant cooling effects that have great benefits for juvenile and adult salmonids in late summer when, at least locally, stream temperatures in the absence of smoke can rise to stressful or lethal levels.”

Unfortunately, uncontrolled wildfire can harm aquatic wildlife by altering water quality and quantity in rivers and streams over short and long-term periods. Wildfire can deposit unhealthy levels of sediment and pollution into rivers and streams, creating cloudy water that is impossible to navigate through and exposing aquatic species to dangerous chemicals and pollutants. The effects of wildfires on aquatic habitats, wildlife, and even drinking water is a topic scientists continue to research.

Increasingly, wildfires are getting larger and more intense — fueled by combustible invasive grasses and warming temperatures due to climate change. People are also moving into areas prone to experience wildfires, increasing the risk of property damage and loss of life. Fortunately we’re using the best available science to manage fires in a way that supports a healthy natural world and keeps local communities safe.

  • Be aware of fire conditions — check in with your local land management agency about fire conditions before visiting public lands.
  • Volunteer at your local national wildlife refuge or national fish hatchery to support conservation: Do you like working outside and seeing an immediate result? Remove invasive species or help maintain fire breaks! Are you an ace with hammer and nails? Help maintain indoor and outdoor infrastructure that visitors love and staff rely upon! Do you love learning about our conservation mission and fire management? Help teach others at a visitor center desk or as a roving interpreter!
  • If you live near where people and wildlife meet, think wildfire mitigation and wildlife migration — remove shrubs next to your house, prune trees up and away from your home, plant in groupings, and maintain low ground covers. These landscaping tips create defensible space for your home while providing a place for passing wildlife, too.
  • Pledge to prevent the spread of invasive species that help support hotter and more intense wildfires — brush off your clothes and shoes after walking in nature, for instance, to prevent spreading invasive plant seeds to new locations.
  • Share what you know about fire and teach others about how to manage for fire.
  • Plant native plants to support pollinators, native birds, and reduce wildfire risk.
  • Put your stamp on conservation — 98% of the purchase price of a Federal Duck Stamp goes directly to acquire and protect wetland habitat and purchase conservation easements across the National Wildlife Refuge System.

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