State Wildlife Management and Resilience, with Chuck Bonham

Image: A young faun crouches under a tree that day after a prescribed burn. Smaller prescribed burns are one technique California uses to reduce the risk that wildfires will spread out of control. Image by: Josh O’Connor – USFWS.

Script by: Jericho Rajninger Blurb by: Amanda Neslund Audio Editing by: Alexandra Jade Garcia

Climate Change Exacerbates California’s Wildfires

Nearly all of California’s landscapes are naturally fire-dependent or fire-adapted, and this beneficial relationship with fire allows ecosystems to maintain healthy functions and promotes biodiversity. However, high-intensity wildfires disrupt this relationship and cause detrimental damage to these ecosystems as wildfires impact tree regeneration, soil erosion, and water quality. According to modeling by the California Air Resources Board, climate change makes the conditions for high-intensity wildfires – like hot, dry summers – more likely. 

Extreme Wildfires Hurt Wildlife

High-intensity wildfires impact wildlife. Many animals cannot move, so die in the fires. Those that can escape, by running or burrowing into the ground, face another challenge when they return: adapting to a new and changing environment. 

While directly measuring wildlife casualties isn’t possible, emergency vets and zoos across California report dramatic increases in their wildlife patients after severe wildfires. During the 2021 fire season, the Wildlife Disaster Network through UC Davis’s Veterinary Emergency Response Team cared for more than 2000 injured wildlife and pets. According to estimates by The Wildlife Society, fires the year before had killed between 300 to 600 cougars – 15% of California’s cougar population.

California’s Plan to Increase Fire Resiliency

In 2021, Governor Newsom signed SB 85, the $536 million Wildfire and Forest Resilience Action Plan, into law to support early action and intervention against wildfires and measures to build resilient communities, restore ecological health, and fund wildfire suppression. 

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) manages over one million acres of land in the state – many of which are both fire-prone and vital habitats for wildlife. As a result, the CDFW plays a key role in implementing SB 85’s goals. 

As part of that effort, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) undertook “the largest wildfire protection and resilience efforts in its history.” This new support has helped not only safeguard CDFW property, but better protect surrounding homes, communities, and wildlife habitats, as well. SB 85 also allowed CFDW to hire additional staff, afford new equipment, and start over forty new fire control projects like creating fire breaks, removing wildfire fuel, thinning overgrown vegetation, expanding livestock grazing, and more. 

In January 2023, the U.S. Senate also introduced the Wildfire Emergency Act. This bill has bipartisan support and aims to reduce the risks of catastrophic wildfires faced in California and across the West of the country. The $250 million act would increase forest restoration and wildfire resilience projects.

Looking Forward 

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) in their 2023 Fire Season Outlook predicts a possible abnormal wildfire season due to mixed temperature and precipitation and flooding anomalies earlier in the year. As a result of these historic storms, critically dry fuel moisture alignments are not expected to be reached for the next four months. 

However, one concern is that the extreme precipitation may accelerate spring plant growth, which once the moisture disappears and heat sets in, will dry out and become additional fuel, accelerating wildfires. The impact of climate change also varies dramatically across different climates of the state with some regions expecting more extreme drier and hotter months. 

Wildfire season in California begins in early summer and runs through late fall. Although fire season has not officially begun, CAL FIRE has reported 196 incidents of wildfires resulting in 51 acres burnt already in 2023. As climate change intensifies California’s wildfires, the work of the CDFW is even more critical because their efforts protect the health of California’s ecological reserves, wildlife, waterways, and communities from the devastating effects of wildfires. 

About the Guest

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), formerly the California Department of Fish and Game, is focused on “improving and enhancing [its] capacity and effectiveness in fulfilling [its] public trust responsibilities for protecting and managing the state’s fish and wildlife.” Chuck Bonham has served as the director of CDFW since 2011. Bonham is responsible for overseeing CDFW’s wide range of projects, from preventing illegal poaching to protecting California’s wildlife from human and environmental conflicts such as drought and fires.  

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Transcript

Ethan: I’m Ethan Elkind, and you’re listening to Climate Break: climate solutions in a hurry. Today’s proposal? Managing wildlife with climate change in mind. Many of us live with nature as our neighbor…but ecological shifts and extreme weather events caused by climate change have already begun altering these natural ecosystems. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife, led by Chuck Bonham, is working to make land in California more resilient to a changing climate.

Chuck Bonham: We own an ecological reserve in El Dorado County. We’ve been working with Cal Fire to thin dense stands of Manzanita, create pathways for botanical surveys and create a fire break around nearby roadways…If you go over to the east side of the Sierra in Mono County, we had our property there extensively burned in 2020, and we’ve been able to start to replant it with native species, which is a jumpstart for the migrating deer herds over there to get food source back.

Ethan: Well-balanced ecosystems rely on a diversity of plants and animals, some of which are disappearing. According to Bonham, conservation efforts by state governments must be more proactive against climate change, not only responding to ecological destruction but anticipating what’s to come.

Chuck Bonham: We have this amazing law called the California Endangered Species Act. We are stalwart defenders of it. A lot of our work is about whether certain species should be protected under it. You often grapple with those decisions when it’s almost too late for the species. And there’s not something I see in the law, policy spectrum that’s really forward-looking, that’s about climate, that’s at a landscape scale.

Ethan: To learn more about how states can improve climate mitigation and resilience…and how you can help care for wildlife near you, visit climatebreak.org.

State Wildlife Management and Resilience, with Chuck Bonham