Wildlife biologist tells Steamboat audience that some birds exploit aftermath of wildfire
Birds of a feather differ over wildfire
January 20, 2017
Steamboat Springs — Ask a western tanager, a woodpecker and an olive-sided flycatcher how they feel about forest fires and you're apt to get three different answers.
Despite appearances, assessing the aftermath of a large wildfire like the 2016 Beaver Creek blaze that burned 38,380 acres north of Steamboat Springs is a not a straightforward process. That's especially true for the birds and other wild creatures that frequent the evergreen forests of Northern Colorado.
"After a wildfire, Western Tanagers move out the area quickly," Routt National Forest Wildlife Biologist Missy Dressen told an audience at the Bud Werner Memorial Library in Steamboat Springs Jan. 19. "But right after a fire has burned through open country, we see species like the mountain bluebird, and olive sided flycatchers coming into the area immediately for the seeds that have been scattered across the forest floor."
The nature of the fire itself, can dictate the way certain bird species respond, Dressen said. Woodpeckers flock back to forests that have been thoroughly scorched. Whether a fire burns primarily through shrubs on the forest floor, or through the crowns of 100-year-old lodgepole pines that are overdue to burn, makes a difference in how species from birds to large mammals are affected.
"Woodpeckers, which forage for boring insects, quickly return to areas with medium to higher impacts," she said. "They're quite happy with a moonscape of an area."
Among mammals, rodents return to burned forests relatively quickly, but larger species – pine martens, snowshoe hares and lynx – are completely absent from the area, sometimes for many years.
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"In some places, Beaver Creek burned in a mosaic pattern (decimating some patches of forest and leaving others relatively untouched)," Dressen said. "That could be favorable for wildlife. Allowing them to adapt to that."
As a result of the complexities of how fire impacts humans, plants and animals, she added, Forest Service officials are weighing the balance between the negative and positive effects of wildfire.
"The affects of wildlife can be positive and, or negative," Dressen told her Steamboat audience this week. "Nowadays we can look at a fire and consider the resource benefit we might get out of it." Beaver Creek, "was different. We looked at the values and in this case, it was the safety of the forest fighters. They really looked at the risk of putting firefighters in that fire because of the (standing dead) beetle kill," and the extra danger posed by falling trees. "So they also ended up pulling back a little bit," in terms of fire suppression.
Wildlife biologists like Dressen can be among the members of a team of resource advisors who are consulted by fire fighting managers on how to protect critical habitat from the flames. In the case of the Beaver Creek Fire, a resource advisor was able to ensure a significant piece of endangered sage grouse habitat was saved.