Blazes May Have Lasting Effects On Wildlife

By Nathan C. Gonzalez

SALT LAKE CITY, UT–Long after the slurry bombers and helicopters go silent, the effects of this summer’s explosive wildfire season on wildlife will continue to be felt for years to come.

Utah’s 805 wildland fires have scorched more than 689,495 acres as of early August, according to the Boise, Idaho-based National Interagency Fire Center. In the wake of the blazes, officials have begun assessing the effects on the state’s wildlife as they continue planning the long-term healing process.

Near Milford, high winds and temperatures pushed a wildfire across the landscape, quickly consuming everything in its path. Biologists counted dozens of dead deer and several smaller animals such as rabbits, Blue Grouse and Wild Turkeys on charred landscape, said Sean Kelly, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR).

“It burned in everything from the desert to the high peaks,” said Kelly. “Most of the losses to wildlife were smaller mammals that couldn’t get away.”

Officials expect much wildlife will be displaced to other areas where animals will likely compete for limited territory and food, Kelly said.

“We are starting to see that a little bit with the big game animals that did survive,” he said. “They are moving into agricultural areas. That’s basically all that’s left. That’s what’s green.”

In the mountains near Nephi, the Salt Creek fire damaged winter range popular to area hunters and home to Elk, Mule Deer and about 400 Wild Turkeys. It’s not yet clear how the fire will impact wildlife hunts in the region, said Ashley Green, habitat manager for the state’s central region for the area’s DWR.

“This area is a really popular place,” he said. “It was a hot and solid burn. We’ve got a real big chunk of wildlife habitat up there.”

In an attempt to help Mother Nature rehabilitate the landscape wildlife depend on for food, shelter and protection, local, state and federal officials will plow charred soils and begin reseeding the area by hand and aircraft. The Bureau of Land Management requested $30 million in seed to help rehabilitate federal property damaged by the Milford Flat fire. State officials will spend about $3 million on reseeding efforts, said Tyler Thompson, a statewide habitat conservation coordinator for DWR.

“The challenge will be getting enough seed,” he said. “The next biggest hurdle is going to be the vast size of the burned area, and getting that seed on the ground.”

When crews begin seeding this fall, they will use a chemical called “Plateau” to target the highly flammable cheatgrass, an invasive species that fuels wildfires.

Area wildlife rehabilitation offices are placed on standby to receive injured animals when wildfires take hold.

“We look at respiratory problems because of the fire and smoke, and actual burns,” said Debbie Souza-Pappas, director of Second Chance Wildlife Rehabilitation in Price.

Despite the active fire season, many of the state’s rehabilitation centers have yet to take any animals in. But she cautioned the fires could still have a lasting effect on wildlife.

“Animals are “going to starve because there is not enough food,” Souza-Pappas said. Even so, Kelly added that natural wildfires provide several benefits and can help increase the health of a forest or rangeland.

“Short term, we are kind of in a little bit of trouble,” he said. “In the long run, it could be a positive thing. Wildfires give you a chance for a clean slate. That’s the positive part.” –Salt Lake Tribune