UAF Wildlife Ecologist discusses migratory bird habitat loss due to California wildfires

Published: Nov. 23, 2020 at 4:23 PM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) -2020 has been a tumultuous year for California as more than 4% of the state’s roughly 100 million acres of land have have been burned in the largest wildfire season recorded in modern history.

Falk Huettmann, Professor of Wildlife Ecology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks spoke about how this southern devastation impacts the life of birds which regularly connect our states by migrating to and from Alaska: “It relates to the subject of global change. So it’s not only climate, many things are changing.”

Huettmann explained that as human civilization continues to reshape the face of the planet, ancient forms of natural disaster such as forest fires change as well, and pose new threats and challenges to different animal species.

“Birds have encountered fire for a long time, [and] in most cases they do pretty well. But birds also became extinct, and there’s several reasons. One is just natural drift and genetic drift, others might be habitat changes. So wildfires in California will affect some of our birds. Nowadays we have a very peculiar situation because we live in the Anthropocene, where some birds are really already on the edge. We really push them into this situation because well... in California 90% of the wetlands are lost in the last 100 years,” said Huettmann.

The Anthropocene is a geological epoch defined by the presence of significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems, including global climate change.

“Of course when you lose wetlands you lose humidity, and then you make an area more burnable. So these are changes they are large scale. Certainly from a wetland perspective it’s massive. When you lose forest habitat and trees it will affect many songbirds, and associated birds,” said Huettmann.

Dramatic habitat changes for many types of birds and other animals are occurring worldwide.

“The California fires are one out of many fires. You have fires in the high arctic now as well, Russia has many fires. That certainly has to do with permafrost and climate change issues. This is all part of a global cycle and of human impacts. I think they’re pretty serious, and they are probably not positive for most birds,” said Huettmann.

While the full ramifications of the 2020 wildfires are yet to be seen, the loss of wildlife habitat for migrating birds is one example of far reaching impacts that can connect distant states such as California and Alaska.

“What’s important really is to see it all as one system. It’s all connected. Wildfires, climate change, global change, human population, habitat loss, the management of diseases, it’s all connected. I think that’s the key point of it all,” said Huettmann.

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