The ongoing fires in the Western United States are driving rare animal species to extinction as they get engulfed in flames and their habitats are permanently destroyed.
2020 has seen the worst wildfire season on the West coast within the last seven decades, with around three million hectares in Washington, California, and Oregon burned to the ground.
35 people have already lost their lives, and damage done to buildings and structures has been devastating. Pollution levels have rocketed, blanketing communities in thick smoke and threatening the health of millions of humans and animals.
Plumes of smoke from the fires are so large that they have crossed the US and the Atlantic Ocean and reached the skies of Europe.
Once lush landscapes are nothing more than charred ashes.
WHAT MAY BE LOST FOREVER
Houses can be rebuilt and trees replanted, but scientists fear the damage to wildlife species and habitat loss could force some animals to complete extinction in the area. These include tiny pygmy rabbits and two species of grouse, animals that have lived in the mountains and valleys of the Western US since time immemorial.
Biologists estimate that the wildfires have already killed roughly half of Washington’s pygmy rabbits which are an endangered species. The rabbits are literally the size of a tennis ball and before the yearly wildfires, their habitat was largely destroyed through agricultural projects in the area.
The flames are also believed to have decimated 30 to 70 percent of Washington’s sharp-tailed grouse and sage grouse – large, chicken-like birds known for their showy mating displays.
This is in addition to the inconceivable number of foxes, rabbits, deer, frogs, mice, coyotes, and other animals who were smoked out of their homes and burned alive.
Elsewhere, fires have threatened the habitat of the white-headed woodpecker, found only in pine forests in the Pacific Northwest and California, and the Grace’s warbler, limited to pine and oak forests in the Southwestern US and Northern Mexico.
WHERE THERE WAS SMOKE, THERE’S DEATH
In New Mexico, researchers are examining whether smoke from the fires might have played a role in the mysterious mass die-off of thousands of birds found scattered on the ground. The birds might have developed respiratory infections because of the smoke, researchers say, or abandoned feeding grounds before they had a chance to store up enough fuel for their migration.
HOW FIRE CAUSES A CHANGE IN ECOSYSTEMS
Flora is also vulnerable with California’s many endemic plants threatened, including the Coulter pine. Researchers are worried that burned forests might not recover from the drier and warmer climate, making it harder for ecosystems to rebound.
In some places, such as the sagebrush ecosystem of the Great Basin west of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, and forests in the Klamath Mountains along the California-Oregon border, invasive shrubs or grasses appear to have taken over. Because the invaders burn frequently, they appear to be preventing seedlings from maturing. This could cause an entire change in type of habitat, one that cannot sustain the animals that do survive.
“While non-human-caused ignitions are typical of fire-prone ecosystems, climate scientists blame global warming for extreme wet and dry seasons in the US West,” said David Barritt of Network for Animals (NFA).
“These wildfires are having an unprecedented and heart-breaking impact on wildlife and are a desperate plea by Mother Nature to relook humankind’s relationship with our natural world or we could all be facing a fiery future.”
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**Feature image credited to: Washington State University