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Human Elements

The world of science is full of facts and figures, but behind the study are the people. In the end, it becomes a question not of how they do science — but why.

How megafires threaten the endangered Canada lynx

Home Range Wildlife Research studies how scorched landscape and changes to habitat in Okanogan County imperil the species’ survival.

Megafires intensified by climate change and decades of fire suppression are altering the landscapes of Okanogan County. Fire suppression in the 1950s created a homogenized forest landscape. As climate change has led to hotter, drier summers, “this comes together in a perfect scenario where fires are able to, once they get started, just take off and run,” said Carmen Vanbianchi, research director of the nonprofit Home Range Wildlife.

The loss of habitat has pushed out key species like snowshoe hares, a critical food source for the severely endangered Canada lynx, estimated at 50 remaining individuals in the North Cascades. Their big fluffy coats and outsized furry paws act like snowshoes and help them effectively travel in the winter to hunt snowshoe hares. The hares in turn depend on dense forest structure for protection from predators. When a wildfire comes through, it’s burning that cover, reducing the snowshoe hare population and impacting the lynx population.

Vanbianchi and her team sample vegetation plots to see how a scorched landscape and changes in habitat could impact their survival: “The worry is that if enough of these huge high-severity fires come in quick succession … there won’t be enough habitat to support our population.”