By: Dave Levitan | July 8 2014, Conservation Magazine
“It’s not just the heat. Climate change will find (is finding) many creative ways to mess with wildlife and challenge conservationists. One such way is to change the patterns of fires that burn across animal habitats; in many areas, drought and heat have led to increases in fire frequency and severity. New research suggests that these changes have direct effects on caribou herds, an issue obviously for the caribou themselves as well as on human populations in the far north that rely on them.
“This is a great example of how it’s not always the obvious effect that matters. Yes, more fire means fewer trees, but for caribou, it’s the lichen that grows on the trees and elsewhere on the tundra that matters most. Caribou subsist on these lichens, and they may be very slow to recover following severe fires. And those fires are coming more and more: half of the biggest fire years in Alaska (based on 60 years of recording), occurred since 1990, with two of the three biggest in the last decade.
“Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Alaska at Fairbanks used climate modeling to assess how two large caribou herds in Alaska and the Yukon might fare in the future as the climate warms. The Central Arctic caribou herd, with about 70,000 individuals, spends most of its winters on the Arctic tundra, while the 169,000-strong Porcupine herd tends to winter in the boreal forest in the region.”