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Effects of prescribed fire on wildlife and wildlife habitat in selected ecosystems of North America

Date: March 28, 2017

Prescribed fire is applied widely as a management tool in North America to meet various objectives

A firefighter in the process of lighting a prescribed fire with a drip torch: a utility task vehicle follows behind.
A firefighter in the process of lighting a prescribed fire with a drip torch: a utility task vehicle follows behind.


Some objectives for prescribed fire include reducing fuel loads and fuel continuity, returning fire to an ecosystem, enhancing wildlife habitats, improving forage, preparing seedbeds, improving watershed conditions, enhancing nutrient cycling, controlling exotic weeds, and enhancing resilience from climate change. Regardless of the particular objective, fire affects ecosystem structure, composition, and function in many ways.


We used a regional approach, focusing on selected vegetation types for our review. Included were southeastern pine and mixed pine-oak forests, eastern coastal marshes, mid-western jack pine forests, sagebrush ecosystems of the Interior West, mixed-severity forests of the northern Rocky Mountains, subalpine and montane forests of the Canadian Rockies, southwestern ponderosa pine forests, desert grasslands, and shortgrass steppe ecosystems. We structured each regional account by reviewing historical and current uses of fire, and then discussed fire effects on wildlife and the challenges of using prescribed fire in each system.

Prescribed fire affects wildlife in various ways. Population responses by species can be positive, negative, or neutral, short-term or long-term, and they often vary across spatial scales. Whereas prescribed fire can create or maintain habitats for some species, it can also remove or alter conditions in ways that render it unsuitable for other species. Furthermore, a species may benefit from fire in one situation but not another. Given the variations in fire and in species responses, the only real generalization one can make is that exceptions occur.

Key Findings

  • Benefits of prescribed fire far outweigh negative effects.

  • The science of prescribed fire continues to provide better information and options for resource managers to incorporate into management plans.

  • Prescribed fire should be applied within a structured adaptive management framework, which requires developing and implementing monitoring systems to evaluate the efficacy of specific fire prescriptions.

  • Prescribed fire is an important resource management tool that can be effective at maintaining or enhancing habitats for many species of wildlife.

Featured Publications

Block, William M. ; Conner, L. Mike ; Brewer, Paul A. ; Ford, Paulette L. ; Haufler, Jonathan ; Litt, Andrea ; Masters, Ronald E. ; Mitchell, Laura R. ; Park, Jane , 2016

Principal Investigators: 
External Partners: 
L. Mike Conner, Co-chair, Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center, Newton, GA (Editor and Co-author)
Paul A. Brewer, Illinois Department of Natural Resources Forest Wildlife Program (Co-author)
Jonathan Haufler, Ecosystem Management Research Institute Seeley Lake, MT (Co-author)
Andrea Litt, Department of Ecology, Montana State University (Co-author)
Ronald E. Masters, Department of Forestry, University of Wisconsin (Co-author)
Laura R. Mitchell, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, DE (Co-author)
Jane Park, Banff Field Unit, Parks Canada Agency (Co-author)