I grew up in southern California watching my father, who retired as Deputy Chief of the Ventura County Fire Department, and his teams battle those huge brush fires fueled by racing Santa Ana winds. I also spent time working those fire lines and can tell you firsthand how dangerous out-of-control wildfires can be, and how they affect everything they touch—including big game.
An animal population’s immediate responses are influenced by many factors, including fire intensity, severity, rate of spread, uniformity and size of the fire. Animals with limited mobility, such as the very young and the very old, are more vulnerable to injury and mortality than mature, healthy animals.
But wildfires also benefit wildlife by releasing minerals into the soil that stimulate plant growth. Fire creates and improves habitat for a wide variety of animals by creating a burn pattern that provides vegetative diversity. Surviving elk, deer and other animals will find new pathways for moving to and from water, and improved calving areas and summer/winter ranges.
The habitat changes caused by fire influence wildlife much more profoundly than fire itself. Fires often cause a short-term increase in productivity, availability and nutrient content of forage and browse. These changes can contribute to substantial increases in herbivore populations, but such potential increases are moderated by the animals’ ability to thrive in the altered structure of the post-fire environment.
For example, fires generally favor raptors by reducing hiding cover and exposing prey. Also, understory fires in forests and woodlands generally alter habitat structure less than mixed-severity and stand-replacement fires, and their effects on animal populations are correspondingly less dramatic. Stand-replacing fires in grasslands, shrub lands or forests reduce habitat quality for species that require dense cover and improve it for species that prefer open sites.
Burns, Bucks and Bulls
Ungulate species often benefit from increased food and nutrition on recent burns. Because ungulates are sensitive to alterations in vegetation structure, however, their net response to fire depends on its severity and uniformity. In one study conducted in northern California’s Lava Beds National Monument during the early 1980s, mule deer populations were little affected by fire; home ranges were neither abandoned nor extended as a result of burning. Mule deer populations in chaparral burned by stand-replacing fire often increase, benefiting from increased availability of browse. Mule deer density in climax chaparral was estimated at 25 per square mile, while density in a severely burned area was 56 per square mile. Fawn production the second spring after burning was 1.15 fawns per doe compared to 0.7 fawns per doe in climax chaparral. Another study reported an even more dramatic increase—deer density in chemise chaparral rose from 30 deer per square mile in unburned brush to 120 deer per square mile the first year after stand-replacing fire. Density decreased each year after that until it reached preburn levels in 5-12 years.
Most other large ungulates either respond neutrally or positively to post-fire changes in habitat. For example, elk rely on browse in seral shrub fields during winter and use dense, pole-sized forest heavily during fall. In two areas converted from sagebrush dominance to grassland with shrub patches by fire, pronghorns were present after fire but not before; they had been absent from one site for 60 years prior to the burn.
You can find numerous other studies on the effects of fire on wildlife and wildlife habitat. But what does it all mean to the modern big game hunter?
First, some perspective. During the past 10,000 years, fire in North American ecosystems has not operated in isolation from other disturbances, and it has certainly not occurred independent of human influence. In many areas, fire has been prevented or excluded for nearly 100 years, but this is unlikely to continue. Government officials and scientists have begun discussing tradeoffs in fire management, and how to better integrate fire management with overall land management objectives to address the potential interactions of fire with other disturbances, such as livestock grazing, floods and insect and fungus infestations.
Because of recent laws prohibiting the harvest of diseased and beetle-killed timber in many Western areas, you can bet the farm that with all this fuel lying around, large backcountry wildfires will occur in the not-too-distant future. When that happens, these areas are often closed to human use for periods of time, including hunting.
When they reopen, however, serious big game hunters should take advantage of these opportunities whenever possible. As the research demonstrates, big game populations often increase right after a big fire. It might take a year or two or three, but once new growth begins to sprout and enough sanctuary cover becomes available, you can often find outstanding deer and elk hunting.
One other advantage my friends and I have discovered is when ultra-heavy cover is burned over but deer and elk numbers return, it’s much easier to glass them up since they have fewer impenetrable thickets in which to hide. How long this lasts depends on how fast the brushy cover grows back.
For many years, fires have been a big influence on how I apply for choice deer and elk tags. For example, Arizona’s Kaibab Plateau region is justifiably known as a super spot for big mule deer bucks. It’s a very difficult area to efficiently hunt, however, because much of the region is flat and covered in thick brush, junipers and pine cover. Many years ago, a large portion of the area burned, and that’s when my friends and I began hunting it in earnest. It was so good that even if we didn’t draw a tag we went along with a buddy who did just so we could help him glass and share in the excitement. We spotted many incredible bucks, and killed some of them. Since then the area has grown back up, and while the deer are still there, it’s much more difficult to hunt them.
Wildfires are an important part of the world of Mother Nature, and while they can cause us some short-term grief, during the long term they generally do much more good than harm. If you play it right, they can also open the door to some of the best hunting you’ve ever experienced.