Ecological Consequences of Fire
In the first years after a major fire, new vistas appear while the lush growth of new, young trees emerges from the burned ground. Today, decades after the 1988 fires, those young trees are renewed forests, once again filling in vistas. Some visitors still feel the Yellowstone they knew and loved is gone forever. But Yellowstone is not a museum—it is a functioning ecosystem in which fire plays a vital role.
Vegetation and Watersheds
The vegetation in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has adapted to fire and in some cases is dependent on it. Some plant communities depend on the removal of the forest canopy to become established. They are the first to inhabit sites after a fire. Other plants growing on the forest floor are adapted to survive at a subsistence level for long periods of time until fires open the canopy. Fire creates a landscape more diverse in age, which reduces the probability of disease or fire spreading through large areas.
One of the two types of cones produced by lodgepole pines, which make up nearly 80% of the park’s forests, is serotinous. Serotinous cones will not release their seeds until the resin sealing them melts, requiring a temperature of at least 113°F (45°C). This adaptation helps ensure the seeds do not disperse until fire creates conditions that favor the establishment of lodgepole pine seedlings: diminished litter on the forest floor and plenty of sunlight through an open canopy.
Fire can limit trees in the grasslands of Yellowstone, such as the Lamar and Hayden valleys. For example, Douglas-fir seeds require conditions that exist only in rare microhabitats in these grasslands. If a seed reaches such a microhabitat during a favorable year, a seedling may develop. Once the tree is growing, it begins to influence the immediate environment. More tree habitat is created and a small forest island eventually appears. Periodic fire kills the small trees before they have a chance to become islands, thus maintaining the grassland.
Mature Douglas-fir trees have thick bark that resists damage by surface fires. In the past in areas like the park’s northern range, frequent surface fire kept most young trees from becoming part of the overstory. The widely scattered, large, fire-scarred trees in some of the dense Douglas-fir stands in the northern range are probably remnants of these communities.
Although Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir are thin-barked, they grow in cool, moist habitats where conditions that enable fires to burn are infrequent. In 1988, 28% of the park’s whitebark pine burned, though it grows in open, cold, high-altitude habitats that accumulate fuel very slowly and have only a short season between snowmelt and snowfall during which fires can ignite and carry. Caches of whitebark pine seeds collected by red squirrels and Clark’s nutcrackers and the hardiness of whitebark pine seedlings on exposed sites give this tree an initial advantage in large burned areas over conifers dependent on wind to disperse seeds. However, this slow- growing and long-lived tree is typically more than 60 years old before reaching full cone production, and young trees may die before reproducing if the interval between fires is too short or if faster- growing conifers overtake them.
Tree seedlings sprout and grow at variable rates between the surviving trees and the fallen and standing snags. As root systems of standing dead trees decay and lose their grip on the soil, the trees fall—sometimes hundreds at once in the presence of a strong wind. However, many trees remain upright for more than a decade after dying by fire or other cause.
Fires may stimulate regeneration of sagebrush, aspen, and willows, but their growth is also affected by other influences such as climate and wildlife browsing. Aspen have thin bark, but the clones are connected by a network of underground roots that can survive even very hot surface and crown fires. Although the above-ground stems may be killed, fire stimulates the sprouting of suckers from the roots, and fire leaves bare mineral soil suitable for the establishment of aspen seedlings.
Soils in Yellowstone that support little vegetation have been largely unaffected by fire. Soils that have dense, diverse vegetation before a fire are likely to respond quickly after the fire with a variety of species and nearly complete cover. Though above-ground parts of grasses and forbs are consumed by flames, the below-ground root systems typically remain unharmed, and for a few years after fire these plants commonly increase in productivity because fire rapidly releases nutrients from wood and forest litter. The regrowth of plant communities begins as soon as moisture is available, which may be within days at some sites.
Plant growth was unusually lush in the first years after the 1988 fires because of the mineral nutrients in the ash and increased sunlight on the forest floor. Moss an inch or more thick became established in burned soils, and may have been a factor in moisture retention, promoting revegetation and slowing erosion.
The amount of soil loss and sediment deposits in streams after the 1988 fires varied greatly. Although extensive erosion and mud slides occurred along the Gibbon River after heavy rains in the summer of 1989, it is not known how much the fires contributed to this. Vegetation regrowth slowed this erosion by 1991. About a quarter of the Yellowstone Lake and Lewis Lake watersheds and half of the Heart Lake watershed burned to some extent, but no significant changes have been detected in stream bank erosion, substrate composition, channel morphology, nutrient enrichment, or plankton production, nor have any discernible fire-related effects been observed in the fish populations in the six rivers that have been monitored regularly since 1988.
Wildfires do not significantly affect the abundance of most wildlife species in Yellowstone. Relatively few animals died as a direct result of the large fires in 1988, and most of those deaths were caused by smoke inhalation. Of Yellowstone’s seven native ungulate species, only the moose has experienced a population decline that appears to have persisted since 1988. Although moose population estimates have been imprecise, it appears that with less willow and subalpine fir available for winter browse, and snow accumulating more deeply with many forest canopies gone, moose winter mortality increased. Mortality in all ungulate species was unusually high in the winter after the fires, but it is difficult to know how much of that was the result of burned forage rather than drought, large herd sizes, and the relatively severe winter. Elk, bison, and deer populations soon rebounded.
Of the 38 grizzly bears wearing radio transmitters when the fires began, 21 had home ranges burned by one or more of the fires. Thirteen of those bears moved into burned areas after the fire front had passed, three adult females without young stayed within active burns as the fire progressed, three bears remained outside the fire perimeters, one adult female was not located for another two years, and another adult female was never located again at all. In a study from 1989–92, bears were found grazing more frequently at burned than unburned sites, especially on clover and fireweed. Even though bear feeding activity in some whitebark pine areas decreased substantially, the fires had no discernible impact on the number of grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Rodents probably had the highest fire-related mortality of any mammals. Although many could escape the fires in burrows, others died of suffocation as the fires came through. They also were more exposed to predators because they temporarily lost the cover of grasses and other plants. But, because of their capacity to have multiple litters with many young per year, rodents quickly repopulated burned areas.
Most birds were not directly harmed by the fires and some benefited. Raptors hunted rodents fleeing the fires, but young osprey that were still in their nests died. Post-fire habitat changes helped some birds. Cavity-nesting birds, such as Barrow’s goldeneye, flickers, and bluebirds had many dead trees for their nests. Robins and flickers found ants and worms more easily. Boreal owls, however, lost some of the mature forests they need.
Last updated: October 6, 2016