EDMONTON – The fire that swept through Fort McMurray and still rages through the northern forest likely destroyed all wildlife in its path, according to one expert. But the disaster’s impact on wildlife has yet to be documented.
“There’s not very much that can survive those fires,” Lu Carbyn, an adjunct professor at the University of Alberta as well as a leading expert on wolf biology, says. “In some cases, if the fire’s not too hot, and if you are a burrowing species – like some species of rodents and so on, and maybe even some species of insects, although that’s doubtful – there may be some small elements that might survive pockets of fires but certainly broad scale, there would be massive destruction of anything that’s caught up in these fires.”
“Wildlife populations have adjusted to take this sort of long-term change into consideration – I mean that’s evolution,” the retired research scientist with the Canadian Wildlife Service says. “What happens in big fires is that plant succession would be set back and as a result there would be a rejuvenation of the process of the maturation of plant systems. So you’d have stages that are sort of the latter part of plant succession and some that are at the earlier stages of plant succession, and so different wildlife complexes would adjust to those different successional stages.”
Plant succession refers to changes in vegetation in a specific area over a period of time and is dependent on factors like disasters, changing conditions or human activity. While area wildlife will adjust to these changes over time, Carbyn says the fire would have been catastrophic to most animals in the area in the immediate aftermath of the blaze.
In covering the massive wildfire, photographers have captured haunting images of deer running through the fire and other animals like bears and wolves in the vicinity of the disaster area.
“Both the bears and the wolves are going to be destroyed in the first instance but it won’t be long for them to be back in the system,” Carbyn says.
According to Carbyn, within one to three years, bears are actually likely to benefit from the fires as there would be a good chance of massive berry crops like blueberries emerging, allowing bears to return and do quite well. Wolves’ success would depend on species like moose and deer that are found in the early stages of the evolution of the forest.
Carbyn says he’s unsure of whether caribou populations would have been in the path of the Fort McMurray wildfire, but if there were, their habitat would definitely have been destroyed. Even with that type of devastation, however, he says rejuvenation of the ecosystem will occur.
“Fairly soon, as the vegetation regenerates, certain species will benefit from that regeneration,” the biologist says. “In terms of hoofed animals… huntable animals, the moose and the deer will do quite well at the beginning.”
READ MORE: Fort McMurray fire: Timeline of events
The Alberta government says while it plans to document the fire’s impact on area wildlife, the work has yet to begin.
“We will be conducting a wildlife survey to monitor wildlife and to take the necessary management actions to preserve wildlife habitat,” Kyle Ferguson, a spokesperson for Alberta Environment and Parks, said in a statement. “We will start this work when it is safe to do so.”