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Fawn Browsing in
an Alpine Meadow

In Western U.S. states and Canadian provinces this summer, wildfires have consumed thousands of acres, forced thousands to evacuate homes, and cost the lives of firefighters and civilians. They have also taken a toll on habitat vital to wildlife—particularly the youngest (like the Fawn in the photo,above), who depend on fresh browse to build fat reserves for their first winter.

How damaging have wildfires been this year?

As July ended, 21 large, active fires blazed across nearly 750,000 acres in seven Western states, including Alaska (6), California (5), Montana (5), and Washington (2). In what may become one of the worst wildfire seasons on record, the U.S. has seen more than 35,600 fires consume in excess of 5.6 million acres so far this year. Though seven seasons have recorded more large wildfires in the same period, only one season in the past ten years has seen more acreage burn (6.03 million in 2011), according to the website of the National Interagency Fire Center.

One of those wildfires—the Reynolds Creek Fire—has raged in Glacier National Park since July 21, leading to evacuations and the closing of part of the historic Going to the Sun Road. Thanks to drought and climate change, Glacier National Park—and much of the western United States—has a bumper crop of dead and dying trees. Stressed by years of drought and ravaged by Pine Bark Beetles, the trees have died in record numbers. Last year, more than 12.5 million trees died in California forests alone, “leaving behind huge amounts of dry fuel that could burn easily as the summer wildfire season begins,” according to one Reuters article published earlier this year.

Though most of the articles about the Reynolds fire have addressed campground and lodge closings, ruined vacations, and disappointed visitors, wildfires affect wildlife, too. Yes, wildlife can—and do—flee from fire and other natural disasters. And, no doubt, experienced and resilient adults, their young in tow, will find safety from the flames in all but the fiercest, fastest-moving fires. But nestlings have nowhere to go should their nests be in the path of a fire. Small and large rodents (such as ground squirrels and marmot) can shelter below ground but face possible asphyxiation due to carbon monoxide poisoning or oxygen deprivation. And young fawns, lambs, and kids, needing all the browse they can find in the short growing season prevalent in alpine regions, may survive the fire only to die from starvation. Even in good years, Mountain Goat kids have only a 50-50 chance of surviving their first winter; a devastating fire could lower their odds of survival should it burn large areas of the park and the vegetation they depend on.

Luckily, the Reynolds Creek Fire (as of July 30) is now 56% contained. And, according to park personnel I spoke with late last week, the fire burned a relatively narrow area on both sides of the Going to the Sun road and did not cause any wildlife fatalities. I was also told that the fire did not affect the Logan’s Pass area, where I’ve spent so much time over the years photographing and observing Columbian Ground Squirrel, Hoary Marmot, Weasel, Black-tailed Deer, Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel, Big-horned Sheep, Mountain Goat, and Grizzly Bear.

Let’s hope the worst has already occurred this wildfire season.