Changes in Fire Activity Threaten 4,400 Species Around the Globe

The Leadbeater’s possum, one of thousands of species threatened by changing fire regimes.

The Leadbeater’s possum, one of thousands of species threatened by changing fire regimes. Tirin/Wikimedia Commons

Humans are driving large shifts in fire activity around the world, from increasing the size and severity of wildfires to burning ecosystems where blazes were historically rare or absent. Now, scientists have found that these changes in fire activity are threatening more than 4,400 species, from birds to mammals to crops.

Species at risk “include 19 percent of birds, 16 percent of mammals, 17 percent of dragonflies and 19 percent of legumes that are classified as critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable,” Luke Kelly, an ecologist at the University of Melbourne and lead author of the new study, said in a statement. “That’s a massive number of plants and animals facing threats associated with fire.”

The findings were published last week in the journal Science by a team of 27 international researchers.

Scientists analyzed data for more than 29,300 terrestrial and freshwater species classified as threatened with extinction by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). They found changes in fire activity threaten at least 15 percent of listed species, by changing in the availability of food and shelter, altering the timing of seed release, shifting ecosystems’ plant compositions, and directly causing widespread mortality.

Not only is the increasing severity and expansion of fire impacting species, the study found. The absence or decline of fire in some previously fire-prone regions — such as grasslands in Brazil and the United States — as a result of land use and climate change-driven precipitation shifts are also putting species at risk.

The scientists said, however, that steps can be taken to help protect species endangered by fire risks. “It really is time for new, bolder conservation initiatives,” Kelly said. “Emerging actions include large-scale habitat restoration, reintroductions of mammals that reduce fuels, creation of low-flammability green spaces and letting bushfires burn under the right conditions. The role of people is really important: Indigenous fire stewardship will enhance biodiversity and human well-being in many regions of the world.”