The Loss That’s Killing the West’s Wildlife

The patchwork of burnt lands that once characterized fire-prone forests is disappearing.

Wildlife runs across a burning tableau
Kent Nishimura / Getty

When Jon Gallie awoke in his Washington home to find his phone brimming with texts and voicemails, he felt dread. The Pearl Hill Fire had exploded overnight, and would soon destroy dozens of buildings in Douglas County. Gallie’s messages, however, didn’t concern his property. They were about his rabbits.

Gallie, a biologist at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, is tasked with stewarding the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit, the smallest rabbit in North America, and one of the rarest in the world. Brachylagus idahoensis is an unpretentious creature, a grapefruit-size ball of beige fur that spends its life nibbling sagebrush and cowering from hawks. In the late 1990s, the rabbit’s population crashed, compelling scientists to eventually capture the survivors and launch a breeding program. Today, several hundred rabbits scamper across three designated recovery areas—the most fruitful of which lay in the Pearl Hill Fire’s path.

At dusk, after the fire had moved on, Gallie ventured into the burn. He found only dune and dust, the sagebrush burned to ash. The next night, he told his colleagues the grim news: Perhaps half of the world’s remaining Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits had been baked or asphyxiated.

“We lost not only the animals, but the entire recovery area,” an exhausted Gallie told me a couple of weeks later. “It took everything we’ve worked on for years and basically vaporized it in one night.”

The Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit is, in theory, just the sort of critter that should garner national headlines: adorable, endangered, utterly dependent on us for its survival. And yet this may well be the first you’re reading of its plight. When Australia ignited last winter, by contrast, wildlife dominated the news: Global outlets mourned the estimated 3 billion creatures that fires killed or displaced, The New York Times ran a front-page photo of a flame-silhouetted kangaroo, and journalists wrote so many stories about mittens for burnt-pawed koalas that animal rehabbers were overwhelmed by donations. Now that America is the country in flames, though, animal coverage has been sparse. Although domestic livestock and pets occasionally crack the fire news cycle, the media have spilled little ink over the fate of their wild counterparts.

Perhaps it’s because we prize the distant over the proximate, the peculiar over the commonplace: Wombats seem precious, coyotes expendable. Still, in Oregon, state biologists are fretting about mountain goats, which may have struggled to escape fast-moving burns along narrow cliff faces. In Washington, officials claim that the Pearl Hill Fire cost the state anywhere from 30 to 70 percent of its remaining sage grouse. Deer have been incinerated, porcupines torched.

Yet focusing on individual losses obscures a larger, population-level truth: Wildlife is exquisitely adapted to thrive alongside fire. In California alone, prehistoric blazes, both lightning-sparked and Native-lit, toasted anywhere from 4.4 to 11.9 million acres annually—far more than have burned in this “record-setting” year. These blazes trigger ecological chain reactions of wondrous complexity. Wood-boring beetles swarm dead trees in charred “snag forests” to lay their eggs, which hatch into larvae that attract black-backed woodpeckers, which drill cavities that furnish nests for bluebirds and nuthatches. Native bees drone in sunlit meadows; warblers flit between new shrubs. When dead trees topple, they shelter snakes and rodents, which feed hawks and owls.

Fire, in other words, isn’t a biodiversity crisis. Rather, it’s the absence of fire—the burgeoning “fire deficit” exacerbated by Smokey Bear’s dogma of suppression—that has been the true catastrophe for wildlife. In California’s Sierra Nevada, the birds in most precipitous decline are those, such as the olive-sided flycatcher, that rely on fire to regenerate habitat. “These areas that are dominated by dead trees, areas that people mistakenly think are destroyed, are ecological treasures,” Chad Hanson, an ecologist and the director of the John Muir Project, told me.

We humans, too, have been imperiled by a century of overzealous firefighting. Managed and prescribed burns, or “good fire,” can help preempt town-swallowing “megafires” by creating what the reporter Elizabeth Weil has described as “a black-and-green checkerboard” of varying flammability. Wildlife biologists likewise celebrate this mosaic, which is formed by different burn intensities, or “pyrodiversity.” One 2018 study, for instance, found that although adult black-backed woodpeckers foraged in severely burnt areas, their offspring hung out in still-living trees nearby, perhaps because the canopy served as a shield from hawks. The needs of woodpeckers and humans might thus be aligned: We are both creatures of pyrodiversity.

Historically, the fire mosaic protected animals by allowing for refugia, fire-resistant spots that shelter wildlife during burns and in their aftermath. Refugia come in many forms: They can be talus slopes or snowfields, beaver ponds or old-growth forests. Nearly all of them are becoming scarce. California has drained 90 percent of its wetlands in the past century, while Oregon has cut down a similar proportion of its old growth, edging out rare creatures such as the red tree vole and the spotted owl. As climate-fueled fires burn larger and hotter, refugia, and the pyrodiversity they encourage, may become rarer still.

“We celebrate the birth of young forests, like the birth of any child, but we’re also worried about the old,” Meg Krawchuk, a pyrogeographer at Oregon State University, told me. “We lost so many of them in the past, and fire is nibbling away at them now.”

Refugia aren’t just becoming scarcer; they’re also harder to reach. When you’re hemmed in by people, even the act of fleeing fire puts you in harm’s way: The California Department of Fish and Wildlife recently warned that bobcats, cougars, and bears may become roadkill as they seek unburned habitat. The problem, says Bev Law, a professor emeritus at Oregon State, is that we have failed to adequately protect the corridors that wildlife need to navigate fragmented landscapes—not only immediately after fires, but as climate change rearranges their niches in the longer term. “Animals need escape routes, but there’s been a huge loss of connectivity between intact forests,” Law says.

Human settlement, as Gallie told me, is a “preexisting condition” that makes otherwise resilient species vulnerable. Our roads, our sprawl, our farms, our clear-cuts: They are all comorbidities. Take the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit, which has been hopping across Washington’s wind-blasted sagebrush steppe for millennia. The rabbits endured thousands of fires in their evolutionary history, hunkering down in burrows as the flames passed overhead and, later, feasting on the rejuvenated sagebrush. But now agriculture and development have devoured 80 percent of the steppe since the mid-1800s, squeezing rabbits into tiny recovery areas. In that context, a single fire can pose a threat—a natural force in an unnatural world.

Given enough time and space, though, even the pygmy bunnies could still benefit from the Pearl Hill Fire. Elsewhere in Washington, Gallie has observed high rabbit numbers in areas with lots of old sagebrush stumps. When he asked some locals about the source of the stumps, they told him it was a fire, way back in the 1980s.

“It shows us that there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” Gallie said. “It’s just that the tunnel is 30 years long.”