unedited Tahoe Mt. News Sept. story
By Kathryn Reed
How many animals perished or have been displaced because of the Angora Fire may never be known.
Now is the time to deal with those who have survived and restoring their habitat. In each step of the U.S. Forest Service’s recovery and restoration process, wildlife, their homes and food sources are discussed.
In the burn acreage were two protected areas for northern goshawks and one for spotted owls. Since the June 24 inferno began and was finally contained on July 2, the birds have been seen by officials.
It’s possible a protected area will be established close to where they had been nesting. Long-term restoration plans must go through a lengthy federal process that includes time for public input.
“When we are fighting a fire, wildlife specialists say where species are nesting so we can try to save those locations,” explained Victor Lyon, wildlife biologist with the Forest Service. “Every step of the way wildlife resources are addressed.”
He said it is impossible to account for the deceased animals because a study had not been done before the fire to identify all of the animals, so counting the ones which remain or come back doesn’t gauge the loss.
Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care isn’t about to estimate the number of losses either. But the South Shore rehabilitation center has been an integral player in helping those left behind.
“When we were finally allowed go to in we found dead porcupines, dead squirrels,” said Cheryl Millham, LTWC executive director. “When you think about these little, tiny guys, they go back into the tree where they were born and the tree burned up. If the parents could get out, they did. All the little babies in the trees and ground squirrels died of heat or smoke inhalation. There was no way they could outrun the fire.”
Some displaced squirrels and chipmunks are scurrying about the neighborhoods that are intact. A volunteer at LTWC used to have a handful of squirrels. Since the fire her place on Seneca has become home to more than a couple dozen.
Birds with singed feathers have come to the center off Elks Club Road. A coyote which had been close to the fire area arrived at LTWC with a broken back.
“We have a story we can’t verify that the two firemen who had to deploy their blanket, that a chipmunk went under with them and then got out with them,” Millham said.
What is fact is the center with the help of veterinarian Kevin Willitts and El Dorado County sheriff’s Sgt. Pete Van Arnum, who is a LTWC volunteer, treated bears with fire burns almost immediately.
A firefighter described feeling the heat through his boots, so wildlife crews weren’t surprised to find a black bear with third degree burns on two of its paws. Van Arnum tranquilized her and crews treated her injuries with a medical field kit.
She’s a neighborhood bear. Every few days Millham gets a call saying the critter is doing OK.
About two weeks after the fire, Willitts had to euthanize a bear because all four paws were scorched, its toes were rotting and maggots were in its feet.
“We know other bears are out there. If they are as bad as her, they would be dead from infection,” Millham said.
The Forest Service says it’s a guess at best to say the increased bear activity is because of the Angora Fire.
“Without tagging the bears or otherwise tracking them, we couldn’t really say,” Lyon said. “The best things for bears is to safely store your trash, don’t put pet food out on the porch overnight, don’t leave reasons to attract bears to your neighborhood.”
Millham attributes the abundance of bears to them being pushed out of their homes from the fire, as well as to Mother Nature.
“Because of no rain the streams are drying up. Natural food sources are drying up. There should be tons of berries right now and there are none,” Millham said. “Bears are not acting aggressively. They are not a threat. They want to survive like all us want to survive.”
The rehab center is caring for two cubs left behind when their mother was killed last month after it entered a house in Christmas Valley and a sheriff’s deputy felt threatened.
A volunteer at LTWC uses the analogy that if a thief is known to be in the neighborhood, you wouldn’t leave doors and windows open. A bear is a thief – a food thief. The same logic should be applied to bears as residents would to a human thief – keep doors and windows shut and locked at night no matter how warm it is.
LTWC is caring for five cubs, with maximum capacity being six. Grocery Outlet and Raley’s are good about donating food, but the $500 grocery bill to feed the little guys is taking a hit on the nonprofit’s budget.
Millham worries things will get worse for wildlife as the Forest Service embarks on its 10-year fuels reduction plan.
“The bird count is way down … about half because of West Nile virus and the fire. We need to make the Forest Service understand they can’t cut down (habitat) in the first three months of spring when birds and animals are reproducing,” Millham said. “I’m not against fire protection. The Forest Service has taken care of the owls and goshawks. But what about the other guys, the robins, stellar jays, woodpeckers … that whole generation where they are going to cut will be dead.”
Lyon explains that fire is a natural occurrence in nature and that it’s necessary to thin the forests.
“I don’t think thinning will actually negatively affect wildlife in the long term. The conditions that allow them to thrive are conditions we are trying to mimic by thinning,” Lyon said.