The prevalence of massive wildfires, particularly in the Northwest, has given pause to hunters across the country. No matter your preferred game, you have to question how these disastrous fires affect the animals, the ecosystem, and hunting conditions both now and in the future. The National Interagency Fire Center reports that wildfires have burned over 8.2 million acres, and that number is still growing. I guarantee that somewhere in the back of your mind, you’re wondering if your favorite hunting venue could be vulnerable to future wildfires.
We can’t predict the chances of wildfires in your hunting locations, but we can say that your concerns about the burned areas in the Northwest are natural but unfounded. While incredibly devastating to human property and sometimes lives, wildfires are a natural occurrence that animal populations have adapted to for thousands of years. Wildlife populations ebb and flow to match the changing landscape. Fast burning fires that rip through low vegetation areas cause calculable wildlife injury and mortality. Still, the more common slower-burning or mosaic (small cluster) fires often cause little or no attrition. Animals are surprisingly adept at fleeing danger.
Burned habitat, of course, remains essentially deserted until forage begins to regrow. Studies have found that as the forage returns, elk and mule deer populations increase for decades, while whitetail numbers plummet. This is because elk and mule deer consume shrubs and grasses that flourish on open land and therefore increase in the aftermath of fires. However, as forests regrow and mature, they provide whitetails with Douglas fir and arboreal lichens, causing whitetail populations to increase while elk and mule deer numbers drop.
Historically, Native Americans would set fires to stimulate forage growth to attract game. They would often use smoky conditions as cover and often saturated their clothing with smoke as a scent guard. Always mindful of safety and wind direction, contemporary hunters have reported that smoky areas provide excellent concealment for stalking deer by decreasing visibility. Some have noted that the smoke seems to confuse the deer to the degree that they often come out to eat and drink at unexpected times, providing extra hunting opportunities.