Officials: Wildfires won't harm East Tennessee wildlife

While wildfires can be devastating, they can actually be beneficial to the environment, and most animals can escape the smoke and flames.

Despite thousands of acres burning across the state, experts say wildfires shouldn't put East Tennessee wildlife at risk.

"Some slower moving things that can't get away, yes, they're probably going to die from the fire or from the heat,” said Matt Cameron with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. “But by and large, animals are able to escape the fire unless it's really intense or really widespread.”

Cameron said bears, deer, turkey, squirrels and other animals are all benefiting from one big saving grace this year: acorns. Thanks to an overabundance of acorns this year, many species living closest to East Tennessee’s wildfires can easily move to other areas for food.

"We've got a lot of acorns on the ground. Wildlife aren't having to move a whole lot because they can find the acorns," Cameron said.

But that has not always been the case. Last year, a shortage of acorns left many bears malnourished and vulnerable.

“We saw lots of bears that didn’t even go into their dens in the winter,” Cameron said. "At 10 months old they should have weighed 75 or 80 pounds, but they were weighing seven or eight pounds. They were literally starving to death."

This year, the opposite rings true.

It comes as Appalachian Bear Rescue prepares to release Finnegan, its last cub, into the wild soon.
When that happens -- like other bears already in the mountains -- he should be fast enough to escape any flames.

"They're going to do pretty well in [the wildfires],” Cameron said. "And they'll return back into the landscape after the fire's over with and scavenge on animals that didn't survive the fire, so they can use it as a good opportunity for feeding."

Fires are a natural part of the ecosystem and many plants are well adapted to the flames, including acorn-producing oak trees. Some animals use fire to their advantage, including predators who consume prey that are fleeing from the flames.

Wildlife officials say residents near the mountains could see an increase in bear sightings as wildfires continue, but experts don't anticipate a large impact on their movement patterns.

(© 2016 WBIR)


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