Wildlife on the run as fire burns refuge

Wildlife on the run as fire burns refuge

20 June 2008

published by www.wdnweb.com

Wildlife around eastern North Carolina has been feeling the heat from the Evans Road fire since it started June 1.

The Evans Road fire has consumed over 25,000 acres of the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, killing some wild animals and displacing others.

The most vulnerable to the widespread ground fire are small animals that burrow into the ground for safety.

“Smaller critters are more likely to suffer fatalities,” Bonnie Strawser, visitor service manager with the Alligator River/Pea Island National Wildlife Refuges, said. “Bunnies, reptiles and small animals, such as field mice, burrow for safety. With the fire coming, they likely got trapped in the ground.”

Even with the rash of fatalities among small animals in the refuge, she thinks that large animals, including endangered species, remain largely unharmed by the fire.

“We don’t have any concern about the wildlife. The few endangered species we have have not been affected by the fire,” Strawser said.

These animals include American alligators and red wolves.

Red wolves have previously been spotted in areas of the refuge reached by the fire, but not since the start of the spread.

“They certainly use the area for foraging and hunting and dens, but during our spring den survey, we didn’t notice any den sites in the area,” she said. “It just means they have to move to other areas.”

Many large animals have been displaced and forced to find new temporary homes.

Residents living near the refuge have spotted an abundance of black bears since the start of the fire.

“There was a specific incident where a lady called over concerns about bears in her yard,” Strawser said.

She believes that the influx of wildlife does not necessarily coincide with the fire.

“Because of the fire, many people may be wondering about bears,” Strawser said. “It’s very likely that the sightings are not due to the fire.”

Certain precautions should be taken when in the vicinity of a black bear or other large wild animals.

According to the Pocosin Lakes Web site, “If you encounter a bear, do not run. Slowly wave your arms, make lots of noise and slowly back away from the animal.”

The Web site also highly recommends that you “do not feed the wildlife. … (and) do not approach them, leave them alone.”

Strawser explained that the animals are “just looking for food and shelter.”

She has received witness accounts of “bears with their fur on fire and whole packs of deer falling in sink holes,” but believes them to be rumors.

“I can’t imagine bears running around with their fur on fire,” she said. “That’s not to say there weren’t bears caught in the fire.”

Don Carpenter, a public information officer with the Incident Management Team, has heard the rumors, too.

“We’ve heard rumors of burnt bears and burnt deer, but we’ve seen no evidence of this,” he said. “But I can’t tell you it didn’t happen.”

Carpenter’s colleague, Jody Brady has seen deer run in to the fire area, but has not recovered any remains of wildlife, except for a box turtle. “There have been deer and various animals chased out by the fire. They become startled and run back in to the black,” he said.

In time, the fire will help the ecosystem and provide more abundant vegetation for wildlife.

“The fact is, we’re not concerned about the wildlife habitat,” Strawser said. “(The fire) will, if anything, make it better.”

Even though the fire will help enrich the habitat, Strawser and those with the refuge are concerned about the danger it poses to area residents

“Don’t think we would ever imply it was a good fire,” she said. “Our main focus is public safety. We’re not worried about the impact on wildlife or the refuge. We’re worried about our neighbors.”

Once the fire burns out, vegetation will start to grow back within weeks.

“Once the ground isn’t hot, it will start greening really fast,” she said. “I’d give it a few weeks after the fire is out. It grows back amazingly quickly.”

The displaced wildlife will find it’s way during the fire, according to Strawser.

“Many animals have been dispersed, but fortunately rural North Carolina has a lot of friendly habitats,” she said.

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