Wildfires could prove to be learning experience for scientists

Wildfires could prove to be learning experience for scientists

14 September 2011

published by www.statesman.com

USA — Ten days and as many sleepless nights removed from the beginnings of the devastating wildfires that slashed through the Lost Pines, biologists have only just begun to tote up the losses in wildlife populations and habitat.

But those biologists, shocked though they may be by the destruction the fires brought to Central Texas, also are preparing for a unique opportunity.

“It sounds terrible to say, but this certainly is that — an opportunity,” said Travis LaDuc, assistant curator of herpetology at the Texas Natural Science Center and a lecturer at the University of Texas.

LaDuc says that the almost total wipeout in some areas of the Lost Pines is going to provide a baseline study point for scientists interested in plant succession and replacement, along with the survival of reptiles, birds and mammals.

LaDuc’s specialty is rattlesnakes, and he’s interested in the fire’s impact on a significant population of timber rattlers that live in the Lost Pines region.

“It’s going to be hard times for anything that can’t fly out of there,” he said. “Everything is going to be displaced. But the biggest issue for timber rattlers right now is habitat fragmentation.”

Not every bit of timber in the area burned, of course, and some of the snakes would have been protected by geography, LaDuc says. Others will have gotten themselves underground in a rat or armadillo burrow, where they would have been protected from the intense heat.

Greg Creacy, who is the natural resources coordinator for state parks, says the timber rattlers, a protected species in Texas, should be fairly safe. “The Lost Pines does, in fact, have a healthy population of timber rattlesnakes. These snakes, like all other inhabitants of pine forests, are adapted to periodic fires,” Creacy said. “They retreat underground, into treetops or flee out ahead of the fire.

“Much of the Lost Pines has unnaturally high fuel loads, which are currently in a historically dry condition due to the ongoing drought,” Creacy said. “These conditions resulted in a more intense/extreme wildfire than the periodic fires that occurred historically (although rare wildfires of extreme intensity did occur). This intense wildfire most likely resulted in some level of direct mortality. However, the population should be able to sustain this impact and rebound at least to pre-fire levels.”

The snakes will emerge from their hiding places to a completely different landscape than the one from which they fled. The pine needles and composting understory are gone, and they will be replaced by a new succession of grasses, small trees and fast-growing bushes.

The birds that nested this spring in the upper reaches of the pine canopy also will have to make some changes, says Cliff Shackelford, Texas Parks and Wildlife’s chief ornithologist.

“Fire typically creates new nesting habitat for cavity nesters,” he said. “It’s short-lived, but it can be a gold mine for several years.”

By then, smaller trees will have begun growing, changing the amount of sunlight that strikes ground cover, changing again the succession of vegetation and the species that utilize that space.

Matt Wagner, TPWD’s director of wildlife diversity, says that he thinks the fires present an opportunity for scientists to utilize the area as a giant classroom for avian, reptile, mammal and vegetation studies that could help in the event of other fires in the future.

“There are going to be some places that didn’t burn,” Wagner said, and those will serve as baseline comparison units to the areas that suffered most from the fires.

“It’s an opportunity to learn because we’ll have that baseline information. We’ll be able to monitor and develop permanent study areas.”

Wagner noted that in 2008, a sweeping wildfire consumed about 95 percent of the habitat on the state’s Chaparral Wildlife Management Area in South Texas. “It rained there soon after the fire, and we had an explosion of non-native grasses that grew up there,” he said. Wagner says he would not expect that kind of response from the Bastrop fire but that the department will be watching to determine what does happen.

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