Science for a Blue Planet

Featuring cutting-edge work, discoveries, and challenges of our scientists, our partners, and the larger conservation science community.

Update from the Field: Fire Management in the Illilouette Creek Basin, Yosemite

Words by Vincent Weber, Point Blue Seasonal Biologist
Edited by Alissa Fogg (Point Blue) and Zack Steel (UC Berkeley)

Vince Weber in Illilouette Creek basin

Our days in the Illilouette Creek Basin began in early twilight, crawling out of a sleeping bag to start bird surveys. Mornings involved 3 to 4 miles of route-finding off trail through a gauntlet of fallen logs, thorny shrubs, steep slopes, and the otherwise unpredictable. One of these surveys led us up an unnamed granite dome with a sheer face scraped flat by glaciers just like Half Dome. From the summit, a cast of three fledgling Peregrine Falcons flew through the air, likely hatched from an aerie on the precipitous face below.

The remoteness of the Yosemite wilderness has allowed for many natural processes to remain intact. In Illilouette, the trees are behemoths, resilient to a long-standing fire regime. The National Park Service has prioritized letting lightning-ignited fires burn, and partnering with UC Berkeley and Point Blue Conservation Science, who I spent this past summer season working for as a seasonal biologist, to monitor wildlife in this fire-diverse system. Our data will be used to help assess how bird, bat, and plant diversity respond to dynamic fire management in the Sierra Nevada and inform how fire in the system is managed going forward.

Our season in the wilderness came to a quick end. We received a text on our satellite devices that the Washburn Fire had started near Mariposa Grove. By that evening a plume of smoke rose like a cumulus cloud in the distance. A haze settled overnight, enough to obscure the horizon. For our safety, we hiked out with the sun looming red behind the clouds filtering the light into sepia tones. Now as we sift through the summer’s data, the Red Fire burns through Illilouette and many of our survey locations, continuing the constant reshaping of the landscape and its biodiversity. As climate change brings more severe fires, our data will help managers understand the implications of expanding a managed wildfire program across the entire Sierra.

Illilouette Creek Basin. Photo by Alissa Fogg.

About this Project

The Illilouette Creek Basin in Yosemite National Park provides us a rare opportunity to study the processes and effects of fire under relatively natural conditions, and to draw conclusions about the application of managed wildfire throughout similar forest types.  In our research we are studying the implications of managed wildfire on forest carbon stability, biodiversity, and pyrodiversity.  The study includes birds, bats, and plants. Our results will allow land managers to better assess which landscapes and conditions are appropriate for managed wildfire, and prioritize where to implement prescribed fires.  There is also an outreach component of the project where we are providing land managers throughout the Sierra Nevada with access to critical information about managed wildfire, and helping them assess if it is an appropriate tool to use on the landscapes for which they are responsible. Point Blue is collaborating as the avian community research lead in this project with the Scott Stephens lab at UC Berkeley. Funding support comes from a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) research grant. We completed two years of data collection, in 2021 and 2022, and will be analyzing and writing a manuscript within the next year. For more information, contact Alissa Fogg, Point Blue Central Sierra Project Leader, at