Climate Change and Fire May Impact Northern Alaska Caribou Herds

Boundary Fire near the Canadian border 2005 (Photo: Tony Chapman, BLM Alaska Fire Service)

Will climate-driven changes in fire regime affect the Porcupine Caribou Herd? Caribou actively seek out and rely on high-energy lichen-rich habitats in the winter, and these lichen stands–also known as “caribou moss”– are uniquely sensitive to fire, requiring 60-100 years to recover after burning. Alaska climate modelers and biologists teamed up to study predicted annual acreage burned in the ranges of two northern herds: the Central Arctic Herd and the Porcupine Caribou Herd (of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge fame). Using newly developed models of wildfire response to climate changes, Gustine et al. (2014) modeled burn acreage in the next few decades under two possible climate trajectories: let’s call them “warm” or “hot”. Under the “warm” scenario they found little change through 2090 in the total old-growth habitats available to caribou of either herd. However, the “hot” climate scenario indicated fires grew larger, increasing average area of winter habitat that burned per decade. In brief, the Central Arctic Herd lost 11% of their winter habitat and the Porcupine Herd lost 21% through 2090 under the “hot” scenario. In addition, 30% of the Porcupine Herd’s current spruce forest habitat changed to a younger forest type or tundra. While biologists continue to debate how much habitat is required to sustain herds at present levels, habitat loss is rarely beneficial and availability of old-growth lichen stands is a big driver of caribou use patterns in most Alaska herds. If we humans have the power to rein in the pace of climate change to the “warm” scenario by slowing our greenhouse gas emissions, the caribou would probably appreciate it. This short illustrated paper is open access—read the whole research article at:

http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0100588

Citation: Gustine, D.D., Brinkman, T., Lindgren, M., Schmidt, J.I., Rupp, T.S., and Adams, L.G., 2014, Climate-driven effects of fire on winter habitat for caribou in the Alaskan-Yukon Arctic: PLOS One, v. 9, no. 7 100588, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0100588

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