Conservationists are concerned about the fate of wildlife after being displaced by catastrophic wildfires burning throughout the Western United States. Many species have grown accustomed to sporadic fire damage and often remain and graze on the fringe of burning areas. However, recent burns have been frequent and extensive, overrunning species’ primary ranges. Large fires consume available food, pushing wildlife to search for alternative food sources. This is especially true for deer and other ungulates.
In Washington, the Carlton Complex fires burned more than 256,000 acres in July and August, the largest fire in Washington to date. The fires reduced a significant portion of Washington’s deer range, pushing the deer into developed areas. Fallout from the fire has increased incidence of human-deer conflict around the impacted area. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), farmers and landowners are now working to repair burnt fences to keep deer off developed land and implement a management plan to reduce conflict.
“A fire of this magnitude will have both short and long-term effects on wildlife populations and the landscape and that will have implications for hunting and grazing in the area,” said Jim Brown, WDFW regional director. “This is not a problem with easy answers.”
Land owners and wildlife managers fear that there will be too many deer for the area to support this winter and possibly for several years to come. The WDFW is working to stop deer from moving into hay fields, pastures and orchards to seek food and cover. Their primary focus is minimizing conflicts between deer and agricultural landowners. The WDFW has proactively granted some farmers harvest permits and damage permits, which are valid until the start of general hunting season. These permits are meant to reduce the competition for food resources, as many deer will likely die of starvation. Additionally, the WDFW plans to increase the amount of hunting permits for antlerless deer this fall and winter in hopes of controlling the population.
Animal welfare groups believe there are other ways to ensure deer survive after being displaced from prolonged fires, like implementing feeding programs. Others encourage the use of fencing to deter deer from human development, which is its own controversial issue. Plans are already in place to establish feeding programs, but the department believes that using supplemental feeding or fencing are not long term solutions. The WDFW will initiate a feeding plan next summer to draw deer away from agricultural lands and back to their natural habitats.
The debate around post-fire population management is not new to the WDFW, or for most western states experiencing widespread fire damage. Developing wildfire contingency plans is imperative to the overall conservation of wildlife. Many remedies, such as re-seeding, have been used and it is up to each state’s wildlife department to find its best solution. Fires can have tremendous benefits for the overall health of forests if the proper management plans are in place, WDFW is working with other government agencies on restoration activities and hopefully long-term deer population impacts can be diminished.
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