Texas wildfires devastating to wildlife

Texas wildfires devastating to wildlife

23 April 2011

published by www.star-telegram.com

USA — With Texas in the grips of a drought and wildfires occurring across the state, wildlife experts expect devastating effects on many animals and birds in some counties.

Prescribed burns and small accidental fires produce beneficial results to plants by removing weeds, providing sunlight-dependent vegetation with more sun and removing parasites, such as ticks, fleas and flies. Large wildfires like the one that continues in Palo Pinto County around Possum Kingdom Lake, however, can have long-lasting negative impacts.

The stage was set over the last two to three years for many Texas wildfires in a number of West Texas counties, said rancher and hunting outfitter Skipper Anderson of San Angelo. “It was a perfect storm waiting to happen,” Anderson said. “We have had extraordinary rains for the last two to three summers that created a lot of new grass and other vegetation, which helps fuel the fires.”

The U.S. Forest Service has reported 8,000 fires in Texas this year, involving all but two of the state’s 254 counties. At least 20 fires remained active last week. The wildfires around Possum Kingdom Lake reportedly have burned more than 150,000 acres and remain uncontained. Livestock as well as wildlife have been killed or displaced.

“Even though some animals may escape [a wildfire], many find themselves in the middle of thousands of acres of burned-out countryside with a lot less shelter and food,” said Dr. Jim Gallagher, a Texas A&M Extension wildlife specialist. “Those living close to the edges usually can find what they need, but competition for food can be intense, and those resources won’t last long. Those plants that do survive are going to be found by every animal in the area and will be utilized beyond their normal limit.”

Animals, such as deer, that feed heavily upon the tender barks of trees and other vegetation will seek new territories outside burned-out areas but that, too, can result in over-competition for food with the deer populations that already are there. As with cattle, the land can only sustain a certain number of wild animals.

Not all animals can escape a wildfire and the reason for that in some instances is man-made. Ranches that have been high-fenced to contain whitetail deer, exotic animals and other wildlife leave the animals with no escape routes when a wildfire sweeps through the entire enclosure. In addition, high-fenced areas often also impede firefighters’ efforts to get in with equipment and manpower to fight the fire.

Wildfires also destroy food sources for many small animals, such as squirrels. Acorns and other nutty foods that squirrels store just beneath the ground surface are no longer usable once a wildfire sweeps through.

The availability of water and moisture needed by wildlife also can be reduced by a wildfire. Evaporation of standing water is increased and moisture-holding plants, such as prickly pear, utilized as sources of water by some animals are destroyed. Also, the need for water often makes some animals more aggressive toward other animals and birds, affecting the young and weaker animals.

The timing of a wildfire also is especially important. Wildfires that occur in the spring, such as those this year, come at a time when plant regeneration and wildlife reproduction is under way. The result of a wildfire can halt or interrupt both. The fires also destroy the eggs and fledglings of not only ground-nesting birds like turkey and quail but also above-ground nests of numerous other bird species.

Although extreme drought conditions already were being blamed for reducing breeding activity among turkeys throughout much of North and West Texas this spring, some turkeys had begun to lay eggs. Most nesting hens can escape a wildfire, but there is no hope for their eggs.

The loss of shelter to wildlife by a wildfire also is critical. Shelter not only provides places for animals to avoid predators but also helps conserve energy. When supplies are low, animals spend more time searching for food and water to maintain their body conditions. Thus, wildfires put animals in great stress.

Wildlife experts say it may take months or a few years for many burned-out areas to recover adequately to support wildlife. Plants and animals will recover, but there is little that can be done to speed the recovery.

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