Is Wildfire Management Hurting Colorado’s Wildlife?

It’s no secret that the way that forest fires and fire suppression has been handled is not the same as how they would play out naturally. Plus, humans have significantly changed the forests and mountains of Colorado thanks to roads, buildings, railroads, landscaping, and other projects.

With all of these changes to the natural way of life, how has Colorado’s wildlife, including our native birds, been impacted?

We will answer that question and discuss options for the future in this article.

Burned and scarred remnants of trees after a forest fire in Colorado.

How our Forests Have Changed

We’ve been changing the forests around our homes and throughout the Rocky Mountain west for over a century and a half.

We started by building railroads that allowed us to cut trees to build towns and homes. Then out of our fear of fire, we decided to “fight” fire by suppressing it.

From decades of suppression, the forests grew dense, and now when there is a fire, it’s an intense one.

High-intensity fires leave behind destroyed homes and neighborhoods and blackened earth instead of green forests.

Now we’ve decided to reduce this dense forest with fire mitigation, removing some, if not all, the fuels in areas close to towns and neighborhoods.

A pinyon jay eats seeds from a pinon tree, which is its main source of food.

Fire Mitigation Techniques and their Impact on Food Sources

However, our fire mitigation (or fuel reduction) techniques aren’t how the ecosystem would deal with this density.

Mother Nature was burning these forests for millennia before Europeans came around. These fires were low-intensity fires that replenished the burned areas and rarely burned large swaths of land. They encouraged plant growth, which in turn encouraged the animals to live in and eat the plants (and each other).

Certain plants, like trees, will only grow with the help of fire. Some animals, like birds, will only live where the correct food source is available. That food source may be the seed of a tree, like a pinyon jay that only eats pinon pine nuts. It could be the bugs that live in the tree, like the woodpeckers that eat pine beetle larvae under the tree bark. It might even be an accipiter like the Sharp-shinned hawk that eats the birds that live in the trees.

Has the Population of Birds Changed?

North America has lost 3 billion birds since 1970, nearly 30%, according to a study published in science magazine from 2019.

Birds are important because they play a key role in the food web and aid plants in seed dispersal and pest control. Birds are also the most studied group of animals on the planet. The old, well-known saying “canary in the coal mine” is an example of how we’ve been watching birds.

Birds are also helpful because they respond quickly to environmental change. The pinyon jay has left areas that have been thinned significantly because there just isn’t enough food. Due in part to this lack of food, the population of pinyon jays has thus declined by an estimated 80% in the last 50 years.

In areas that were masticated (a fuels reduction process commonly used in large land tracts), studies show bird populations have declined more than 50%. In both examples, birds respond almost immediately to the fire mitigation in their area.

Native wildfires grow amongst rocks and other plants on an Evergreen, Colorado property.

Current Fire Mitigation in the Colorado Foothills

In Colorado’s foothills, fire mitigation is constant these days. The insurance companies, governments, and media are strongly driving homeowners to do fire mitigation.

Most fire mitigation projects have tree removal as part of the scope of work. Yes, these trees are a big component of the overall fuels on a site. But how many trees and which trees can be the difference in whether we leave enough wildlife habitats behind.

The impact of removing a large tree, which has been there for longer than we’ve been changing the forest, can be huge. They shade the soils under them, offering cooler, moister earth for plants that have fruit and shelter for birds. These trees could offer that food and shelter themselves. That might be year-round or just for a short period of the year.

Read more about the benefits of trees >>

Birds in the Colorado Foothills

Many migratory birds use our forests as a seasonal hangout. Some are just passing through, other stay the whole season. Weather extremes, especially drastic changes in temperature, will impact migratory birds greatly.

Hotter than average temperatures will decrease a bird’s ability to store fats and reproduce.

Sudden snows and cold snaps force them into their migration too soon.

Forests, and not just the trees, the whole system cool the air and the soil during summer months and hold heat during the cold months. This acts as a balance to the weather’s impact on all wildlife, especially birds.

A logging truck transports logs in Colorado.

What Positive Changes Can We Make?

Now that you’ve heard all of the negative impacts of some types of fire suppression methods let’s discuss what you can do to change our area, both for our local wildlife and the health of our properties.

View Fire Mitigation Differently

As we’ve mentioned in other posts, mitigating fire danger does not have to mean clearing an entire area of vegetation or removing all of your trees. In fact, that can often lead to more fire hazards in the future as invasive weeds and plants grow in empty spaces.

Instead, work with a professional like LAM Tree Service to choose which trees to keep, which to prune carefully, and which to remove. Add native plants whenever possible, focus on a defensive space, and keep your property well-maintained and your plants and trees watered and healthy.

A better way to protect homes from wildfires >>

Keep Wildlife in Mind

Most of the time, wildlife is only noticed when it becomes a nuisance. Deer might eat plants, destroy tree bark with their antlers, or cause traffic issues. Voles and other rodents are known for causing issues under the snow. Even some types of birds, such as woodpeckers, are only known for the damage they can create. (Woodpeckers only create holes to reach the insects that are already infesting a tree, but that’s a different topic).

When you look at your yard and property as part of a greater ecosystem, your perspective can change. If you have enough local plants, deer won’t have to forage for food. Beneficial insects can take care of some of your pest issues. Hawks, owls, and other predators are great for rodent control.

Planting some native flowering plants, trees, and wildflowers can provide food sources for pollinators.

And as mentioned earlier, trees are sources of food, shelter, and protection for a variety of birds and other wildlife.

Great plants for firewise landscapes >>

Native wildfires grow amongst rocks and other plants on an Evergreen, Colorado property.

Plant and Care for a Variety of Trees and Plants

One way to reduce the risk of fire spreading AND help local wildlife is to cultivate a variety of trees on your property. Aspen trees are popular in our area, but there are other trees with fewer issues.

See some of the issues that aspens have >>

Planting different tree species helps wildlife in that it provides food and shelter for more species of birds and animals.

Additionally, having a diverse landscape that is made up of a variety of tree types, ages, and sizes can lower a property’s wildfire risk.

According to the Nature Conservancy, “Thinning the forests [note: not removing all trees] and building back heterogeneity into the landscape – a mix of different ages, sizes, and spacing of trees – will help them withstand not just wildfire, drought and insects but climate change.”

We have covered many trees that work well in the Colorado front range area, including:

  • Blue Spruce
  • Canada Red Chokecherry
  • Douglas-Fir
  • Lanceleaf Cottonwood
  • Limber Pine/Rocky Mountain White Pine
  • Lodgepole Pine
  • Narrowleaf Cottonwood
  • Plains Cottonwood
  • Ponderosa Pine
  • Rocky Mountain Bristlecone Pine
  • Rocky Mountain Juniper
  • Scrub Oak
  • Serviceberry
  • White Fir

Click here to read more about any of the above trees >>

Plus, you can always ask the tree experts at LAM tree service for tree recommendations. In many cases, we can even procure and plant the trees for you!

Learn About Birds You’ll Spot in the Colorado Foothills

It’s harder to appreciate things that you don’t know or notice. Colorado has both native birds and migratory birds that pass through.

LAM Tree Service plants a variety of trees on an Evergreen, Colorado property.

Ready to Create Your Own Healthy Ecosystem?

If you want to create a healthy landscape, keep and maintain some of your trees, provide food and shelter for wildlife, and still ensure that your property is fire-wise, contact LAM Tree Service.

We have the knowledge and experience to help you create defensible space on your Colorado Mountain West property while also helping you keep your trees healthy, pest-free, well-watered, and properly pruned.

Contact us today for more information.