How forest fires affect wildlife and their habitat

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FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) – The porcupines walked slowly and funny, more than they usually do.

Their stride concerned some residents of a neighborhood in South Lake Tahoe who called a rehabilitation center. It turns out that the porcupines suffered severe burns to their paws, fur, quills and face after a wildfire burned the area.

Wildlife centers in the western United States look after animals that have been unable to escape the flames or that search for food in burned areas.

An emaciated vulture recently found on the shores of Lake Tahoe couldn’t fly, likely because food isn’t as plentiful in the scorched areas, said Denise Upton, director of animal care at Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care.

“This is what we see in the wake of the fires – just animals struggling and being pushed into areas where they are not traditionally,” she said.

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IS FIRE GOOD OR BAD FOR WILDLIFE?

Not necessarily either, says Brian Wolfer, the play program manager for the Oregon Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.

“It’s a disturbance of the landscape that changes the habitat,” he said.

Some species benefit from forest fires, such as raptors that hunt rodents that flee flames, beetles that move through deadwood and lay eggs, and woodpeckers that feed on them and nest in hollow trees.

The fire exposes new grass, shrubs and flowering stage vegetation that feed elk and deer. When food sources are plentiful, female deer produce more milk and fawns grow faster, Wolfer said.

On the other hand, animals that depend on old growth forests can struggle for decades to try to find suitable habitat if trees are caught in a fire, Wolfer said. If the sagebrush burns, the sage grouse will not have food in the winter or a place to hide from predators and raise its young, he said.

“In the years that follow you see a reduction in survival and over time that population starts to decline,” he said.

Some forest fires burn in a mosaic, thus preserving certain habitats. But the hotter and faster they burn, the harder it is for less mobile animals to find suitable habitat, he said.

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HOW ANIMALS RESPOND TO WILD FIRES

Mice, squirrels and other burrowing animals dig in cooler soil, bears climb trees, deer and bobcats run, small animals hide in logs and birds fly to escape the flames, heat and smoke.

“They almost seem to have a sixth sense,” said Julia Camp, resource manager for the Coconino National Forest in northern Arizona. “Often their response is faster than ours. “

Firefighters spotted scorched-legged turtles on the edge of forest fires, snakes emerging from the woods and frail red-tailed hawks on the ground.

Biologists can take precautionary measures, like moving introductory pens for Mexican gray wolves or scooping up threatened or endangered fish if they know a fire is approaching, Camp said.

In 2012, a team of biologists responded to a massive lightning-triggered forest fire in the Gila Wilderness in southwestern New Mexico to save the Gila trout from potential flooding of ash, soil and debris. charred that would come with heavy rainfall. The fish were sent to hatcheries which replicated their habitat until they could be returned.

Some animals do not survive wildfires, but their deaths do not affect the overall population much, according to wildlife officials.

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HOW WILDLIFE FACTORS IN FIRE MANAGEMENT

When wildfires break out in northern Arizona, Camp pulls out his maps. She can see where Mexican spotted owls live, what fish live in which streams, and where bald and king eagles nest.

“If we’re going to put in a bulldozer line, it won’t be in the middle of their nesting area,” she said. “But if something goes towards Flagstaff, we’ll still have to put out the fire.”

Some of these decisions are motivated by the federal Endangered Species Act.

In 2015, a wildfire threatened the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge on the North Carolina coast. Firefighters cut low branches from old pine trees where the red cockade woodpecker nestles and burned other potential fuels.

“What ultimately happened was that the fire approached this area, but due to these measures it did not affect the woodpecker’s nesting areas,” the spokesperson said. from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Kari Cobb.

Firefighters can also starve wildfires by using rear burns so that the flames burn at the base of trees rather than more intensely in the tops and threatening wildlife habitat.

Other considerations come into play when dropping fire retardants so that the chemicals do not affect water sources or suffocate sensitive plants.

Forest fire managers also try to avoid transferring mussels, fungi or non-native plants that might hitchhike into helicopter buckets by carefully choosing water sources or disinfecting them. buckets, Camp said.

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HOW TO LOCATE AN INJURED ANIMAL

Injured animals will move slowly or not at all. Experts say the best action for humans is to keep their distance, not to feed the animals, and to call wildlife officials or a rescue group.

“Sometimes you don’t necessarily do them the favor you think they are if this care is going to get them used to it, losing their fear for people,” Wolfer said. “We have to think in helping him, ‘Am I going to reduce his long-term survival potential?’ Animals are tough, much harder than we give them. “

The University of California Davis-based Wildlife Disaster Network has collected animals from several fires in California last year and others that burned this year in the Sierra Nevada. These include a baby flying squirrel, baby fox, and cubs.

Staff scan animals for visible wounds and perform blood tests, x-rays and ultrasounds to develop a rehabilitation plan, said veterinarian Jamie Peyton, who helps lead the network.

“I really think you can’t just look at one being and think, ‘It’s not worth it, it’s not worth trying,'” Peyton said.

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ARE ALL ANIMALS RETURNED TO THE WILD?

The survival of an animal in the wild depends on the severity of the burns and the age of the animal.

Treating burnt adult bears is difficult because they tear off traditional dressings, and if they eat them, it can clog their intestines, forcing euthanasia, Peyton said.

A bear she groomed in 2017, named Lucy, forced her to think differently.

“I was really stuck trying to control the pain, and she didn’t want to take the medicine, despite my pleas and a few donuts,” Peyton said.

Peyton developed a tilapia skin dressing that is now used on 15 different species, including a porcupine at Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care whose legs were burnt. Another porcupine in the center will not be released until his quills grow back so he can defend himself, Upton said.

Adult bears and pumas are usually released within eight weeks so they don’t get used to humans as keepers, Peyton said.

Sometimes animals leave rehabilitation centers on their own terms. A bear cub who was found walking on his elbows was rescued from the still burning Tamarack fire south of Carson City, Nevada, and treated in central Lake Tahoe. The little one pushed through a faulty gate in an outdoor enclosure this summer and left.

“He had really healed a bit before deciding he didn’t want to be here anymore,” Upton said. “I’m pretty confident he’s okay. It was a little wild bear.


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