As wildfires continue to burn in the vast boreal forests of northern Ontario, flooding the deep green and blue of the land, experts are paying close attention to the hundreds of animals that live in them.
Although the 2021 fire season is already one of the worst fire seasons in the past decade, this year’s fires are not the most worrying-but those that have yet to come.
Connie O’Connor, director of the Northern Ontario Project for the Wildlife Conservation Society of Canada (WCS), said: “Animals have adapted to wildfires. Some animals go to the water, while others run away before the fire.”
But as summers in northwestern Ontario become warmer and drier-O’Connor and others believe this is related to climate change-fires become more frequent, bigger, hotter and more violent.
“As a wildlife scientist, I am worried that these fires will develop to a point where animals naturally adapt to fires and cannot handle them, which will make them at a loss.”
O’Connor, a trained aquatic scientist, said that many people have not really considered the relationship between fish and forest fires, but fish have a certain ability to adapt to fires, such as naturally looking for deeper and cooler places in the water system.
“The ash that enters the water, in the long run, it can even be beneficial to fish, because it can increase the nutrients in the water and allow small aquatic insects and things to grow.”
But O’Connor said that as industrial activity and the construction of new roads and dams continue to reshape parts of the boreal forest, hotter temperatures may lower water levels. O’Connor said “acute fish deaths” may increase. She said that was because the same waterways and deep-sea areas that fish have always depended on will no longer exist.
Then, firefighting work may harm fish, “because the actual flame retardant may be toxic to them, and the foam fire extinguishing agent on the water will block oxygen.”
Before working as a wildfire researcher, Matt Scrafford was a field firefighter on the front line of the fire.
“We often see animals escaping from these fires,” he said. “I mean, we already have snowshoe hares running over our heads, or you will see deer running, or chipmunks or squirrels…you will see them escaping from the fire.”
Scrawford said that mobile terrestrial species can usually avoid fires, but the problem is that these forest fires are huge and change the composition of the entire landscape.
“These animals really don’t have many places to go. In a sense, these systems are full of animals from the beginning, and there is no place where these animals can be driven out.”
Add to the disturbances of forestry, mining and other human activities in the boreal forests, “you will only get very high disturbances,” Scrawford added. This will lead to more competition for limited resources, and some species will inevitably be affected.
The researcher pointed to the elusive species he studied: the wolverine, a threatened species in Ontario.
“We saw many wolverines without eyes, no ears, no sides of the skull…they really beat each other,” Scrawford said. “This is because habitat competition is fierce and females compete fiercely.”
Wolverines have territories. Although they have a large “habitat”, he said that all disturbances may cause hundreds of wolverines to fight with each other because of the disappearance of their habitat.
Although he has not seen this happen, as his research continues, this is something that Scrafford pays close attention to.
“There must be a relationship between the increase in the frequency of forest fires and the severity of these fires and some of the negative effects on wolverines.”
Claire Farrell, deputy conservation scientist at the Canadian Wildlife Conservation Association, said that even some of the most flexible animals—birds—will be affected by increasingly intense and frequent wildfires.
Farrell explained that there is a natural forest fire system. Forest fires can cause patches of burned areas and then grow again.
“When you describe a forest, it is actually a mosaic of forests of different ages. Different types of forests are scattered with lakes and wetlands. Because the mosaics are so different, different kinds of birds depend on these habitats.”
Some of Farrell’s previous research focused on nighthawks, a family of birds that was previously considered to be one of the fastest declining species in Ontario. She said that nighthawks actually used large, open burn patches caused by forest fires to fly around to catch large insects.
“As climate change increases the intensity and severity of forest fires, in theory, this will create more burned open woodlands for them, which are used to catch a large number of insect prey.”
However, she warned that many other birds, such as roast birds, rely on ancient forest patches as habitats, and these areas may decrease as wildfires grow.
Farrell said that northern aboriginals reported that they saw new species change their range as they adapt or search for new habitats, and no longer see some known species that have always existed.
In response to O’Connor and Scrafford, Farrell said that there are still many unknowns about how climate change, wildfires and other human disturbances will cumulatively affect the wildlife in the northern forests of northern Ontario.
“This is something we are paying attention to,” she added.