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Fires can help, hurt wildlife.

Byline: From Register-Guard and news service reports

PORTLAND - With the fire season in full swing, wildlife biologists are waiting and holding their breath over the impact this year's fires will have on wildlife - and on hunters.

As trained scientists, biologists know fire is an integral part of ecological health and that it usually provides long-term benefits to wildlife.

But they also know that a catastrophic fire in extremely dry conditions can burn critical habitats in forests and rangelands, hurting some wildlife populations in the short term.

As fire crews mopped up the Winter and Tool Box fires in south central Oregon earlier this month, wildlife biologist Craig Foster found some good news and bad news in the burn area.

Two trees with bald eagle nests burned, and it is unknown if the young survived. But a herd of about 10 bighorn sheep that make the Winter Rim their home have already been spotted using a burned area.

"We haven't seen much direct loss," said Foster, a district wildlife biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in Lakeview. "This isn't like the Pines Springs Basin fire of '89 - moving 70 miles an hour and catching deer and elk."

Foster said most large mammals move out of the way of a fire as it approaches. However, fire may directly impact species living or nesting in trees. The young of many small bird species such as warblers, native sparrows and hummingbirds may have perished in this month's fires because they were too young to fly.

It's too early to tell if small ground mammals such as chipmunks and ground squirrels suffered a population loss as the fire burned along the ground, he said. Usually, ground-burrowing animals safely seek refuge underground or in a small oasis the fire has missed.

Meanwhile, hunters planning for this fall's season also are watching the fires with interest. In some areas, access to hunting lands is blocked by active firefighting efforts. In other cases, the land used by deer, elk or antelope herds has burned and caused the animals to move.

"We're going to have some habitat losses in the short term. The Toolbox fire burned 30 to 40 percent of the winter range used by mule deer in the Silver Lake area," Foster said. "There's going to be some impact to mule deer hunters this year."

Foster and other ODFW biologists will actively work with federal, state and private land managers in the coming months in rehabilitation efforts to stabilize soil and replant native plant species that support wildlife.

Many forest and rangeland habitats evolved over time to thrive with intermittent burns. Alder and lodgepole pine will quickly re-establish in their habitat niches. In most cases, fire releases nutrients causing the plant quantity, quality and diversity to increase dramatically over the next one to five years. Large fires also result in a mosaic of habitat types that many wildlife species use.

Wildlife species also evolved to thrive on the plants that recolonize a burn area within one to three years. Deer and elk eat the grasses, leaves and shrubs of young forests and will likely increase in population size after an initial decline. Other species, such as bear and cavity nesting birds, will experience population declines in the short term. In the long term, snags and downed woody debris left by the fire will benefit those same bear and bird species.

John Toman, an ODFW district wildlife district biologist in Charleston, has witnessed the change in wildlife populations over the course of a decade after the Silver Fire complex burned the Kalmiopsis Wilderness in the late 1980s. After decades of fire suppression efforts, the forest floor was dense with undergrowth and burned hot. By the early 1990s, the 150,000-acre burn area was being used heavily by deer and elk.

"Now we've grown up again and have mature brush, which is not as rich in proteins or nutrients for the ungulates," Toman said. "But, it's heavily used by bears, small mammals and birds."

Meanwhile, Merv Wolfer, ODFW wildlife biologist in Roseburg, says people living in the urban-wildland interface near fire areas could see an increase in wildlife on their property.

"Deer will move to areas where they can find food," Wolfer said. "In some cases, it's the green lawns and protected area around houses."

Wolfer advises people not to feed wildlife that may visit their property, to discourage them from staying and keep damage to a minimum. Any wildlife that does take refuge on private property may stay until it rains.

For more information about fall hunting seasons and potential access restrictions, ODFW biologists ask hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts to check with local land management agencies and the local ODFW office.

Additional information can be found on page 8 of the 2002 Oregon Big Game Regulations and on the ODFW Web site:


Associated Press Kirk Pendleton (right) of Gold Beach feeds a deer at a fire camp near Agness.
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Title Annotation:Impact: The long-term effects of blazes often turn out to be beneficial.; Recreation
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Aug 22, 2002
Previous Article:Walden bound for Montana.
Next Article:ODFW study set to track coast salmon.

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