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California Rim Fire Affects Habitat for Imperiled Wildlife


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A great gray owl (Strix nebulosa) in Oregon. The California Rim fire destroyed nesting habitat for a clan of 200 genetically distinct owls in the High Sierra wilderness. (Credit: Dave Herr/USDA Forest Service)

A great gray owl (Strix nebulosa) in Oregon. The California Rim fire destroyed nesting habitat for a clan of 200 genetically distinct owls in the High Sierra wilderness. (Credit: Dave Herr/USDA Forest Service)

The California Rim fire that ignited August 17, 2013, burned over 257,000 acres and destroyed significant habitat for a number of California’s rarest animals. The fire burned for weeks as it moved through the Sierra Nevada forests, Yosemite National Park and Stanislaus National Forest.

A small, genetically distinct population of great gray owls (Strix nebulosa), a state-listed endangered species in California, lost dozens of nesting and roosting sites in the blaze, as did spotted owls and goshawks. The fire also threatened the Sierra Nevada red fox (Vulpes vulpes necator), with flames reported within 12 miles of 10 different breeding pairs. Biologists fear coyotes may have eaten the foxes trying to escape the blaze, a significant setback for a species that is being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

The Pacific fisher (Martes pennanti), another species proposed for federal protection, faces habitat loss after the blaze destroyed areas of old growth forests near the Yosemite River, where an isolated population of about 500 fishers live. The full extent of the damage will not be known until federal biologists can survey the extremely burned areas, which could remain closed for a year due to safety issues.

Food and shelter are often hard to come by in fire ravaged areas; and local residents have reported an increase in starving bobcats, mountain lions, and bears near campsites. A few of the bears were badly burned and had to be euthanized. Common species, such as deer, bears, chipmunks and squirrels, are expected to rebound, but the fate may be different for the black-backed woodpecker (Picoides arcticus), a state-level candidate for the California Endangered Species Act.

Federal agencies quickly developed post-fire management strategies, but efforts have been slowed by the 16-day federal government shutdown. Biologists remain hopeful that affected species will recover, and just weeks after the immense Rim fire, acres of burned forest are beginning to regenerate growth and life back into the barren land. Fire can be good for the land, as it recycles nutrients back into the soil, allows plants and wildflowers to grow, and improves habitat conditions that some species depend on for survival. However, the fire has created an intense focus on timber production, after an estimated 1 billion board feet of lumber were destroyed in Stanislaus Forest in the fire. This has created controversy among ecologists arguing impacts of climate change and habitat need to be considered, while timber industry advocates counter that now is the time for large-scale logging projects.

Sources: Environment and Energy Daily (October 21, 2013), Los Angeles Times (October 21, 2013), Huffington Post (September 27, 2013)



View the full article from The Wildlife Society's Wildlife Policy News
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