Friday, August 31, 2007

Wildlife copes with threat of fire

Officials ask residents to watch out for critters fleeing flames

Express Staff Writer

This flock of Canadian geese took off after a helicopter lifted off as part of the ongoing Castle Rock Fire suppression effort. Photo by Willy Cook

Humans aren't the only ones impacted by large wildfires.

Since the Castle Rock Fire began, wild critters large to small have become refugees in much the same way the upright, two-legged kind of critters have been forced out of their homes and compelled to seek shelter with friends, family and generous strangers.

One visible sign of this major animal exodus can been seen along Wood River Valley roadsides, including on state Highway 75, the major arterial connecting valley communities north to south.

Hailey resident Carol Brown, an employee of the Sawtooth National Forest and more recently a fire information officer for the Castle Rock Fire, has witnessed this mass migration first hand.

Leaving home bright and early to drive north from Hailey to Ketchum on Highway 75 in recent days, Brown has seen about every imaginable species of wildlife native to the Smoky Mountains region, which the Castle Rock Fire covers.

Talking by phone Thursday, Brown said she's seen deer, badgers, black bears and many other animals crowding the dangerous roadsides along the busy highway. It's a recipe for disaster that inevitably puts critters on the losing end.

"They're all stressed, and they're compressed into smaller areas," Brown said. "We've seen more wildlife killed on the highways this year."

She said local wildlife were already dealing with a significant level of stress prior to the fire because of the extreme drought pervading the entire Central Idaho region. Drought sends animals into the low elevation country and thus into the backyards of people, onto highways and generally into areas they shouldn't be in and that are dangerous for them, she said.

"Throw in fire, and that pushes them even farther," Brown said. "We're getting so much wildlife coming down."

So, how should drivers act while the Castle Rock Fire continues to burn, sending wildlife into areas they normally aren't seen?

Slow down, Brown said. Smoky conditions, especially in the early morning hours, make spotting wild animals hard, she said.

Firefighters are especially impacted by the movements of stressed wildlife during wildfires, Brown said.

In the past week, local Idaho Department of Fish and Game wardens have had to trap and transplant at least one male black bear, and possibly even one more, she said. The bears have been continually seen in the vicinity of the large tent city south of the Castle Rock Fire incident command post on the Reinheimer Ranch in south Ketchum.

On Wednesday night, a bear actually thrashed four unoccupied tents that firefighters placed right along the Big Wood River just west of the tent city, Brown said. In light of the incident, fire officials have asked firefighters to not set up their tents next to riparian areas.

In the long term, perhaps within three to five years, wildlife may actually benefit from the Castle Rock Fire, said Randy Smith, wildlife manager for Fish and Game's Magic Valley Region.

"A lot of it will work to improve wildlife habitat," Smith said.

Eventually, areas that didn't support much undergrowth before the fire—especially heavily timbered areas—will burst back with lush forage, he said. Aspen groves, which are highly valued wildlife areas, benefit from the disturbance created by fire.

In the short-term, though, wildlife like deer and elk may have a tough go of it, especially this winter as they find much less forage, Smith said. One prime example of this is includes south-facing slopes in the lower Warm Springs Creek drainage that have been burned by the fire.

It's an area that is heavily used by wintering elk.

"The severity of this winter will largely dictate what the losses are," Smith said.

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