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How Wildlife Weathers California’s Deadly Wildfires

Mountain ridge ablaze in the Woolsey Fire. | Peter Buschmann via Forest Service, USDA

Created in partnership with Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

This desert cottontail was dropped off at a rehab center with multiple injuries. He has found a home at an animal habitat. | Renee Grayson/Creative Commons
An injured desert cottontail much like this one was found outside a YMCA during the Sadderidge Fire.  | Renee GraysonCreative Commons

A concerned citizen noticed an adult female desert cottontail cowering against a wall outside a YMCA in Porter Ranch early on during the Saddleridge Fire, then covered the rabbit with a blanket and brought her to the California Wildlife Center on the morning of Oct. 11. Veterinarians determined she was suffering first-degree burns around her eyes and ears, a singed toe and corneal damage on both eyes. Today she’s being treated with topical ointments and antibiotics. “We did have her in an oxygen cage in case she had any damage to her lungs from smoke inhalation,” says Dr. Stephany Lewis, a Veterinarian with the Center. “So far she seems like she's doing well. We're definitely seeing progress. She may lose the very tip of her ears, but just the outer edges. And so far her vision appears like it's going to be saved.” The goal is to release her back into the wild once she has healed, giving this rabbit’s story a happy ending.

California’s wildfires have become more destructive and frequent in recent years for many reasons, including land management issues, unsustainable logging practices and climate change, reports Pamela Flick of the Defenders of Wildlife nonprofit. She cites significant changes in rain and snow patterns, with less snow and earlier snowmelt, as well as some regions of the state remaining in drought-like conditions, like where the Camp Fire ignited in Butte County, scorching over 153,000 acres in November of 2018.

Cumulatively, this profoundly affects every living being in the vicinity, leaving an aftermath of potentially long-term consequences. Smaller burrowing animals often survive and exhibit resilience after wildfires, thanks to their abilities to dig themselves into the ground or flee. “They've evolved with wildfires as part of their environment. A lot of them understand to leave,” says Lewis. “When we see them, it may be due to them encountering some manmade structure. You often see images of rabbits against retaining walls and things like that.” And of course birds can fly away, though a dove with all of its feathers burned off and debris in his eyes was brought in to Wildlife Care of SoCal by Channel 4 news during the Simi Valley-based Easy Fire — she is fine and will be released after full molt, says the mostly volunteer-run organization.

Injured dove | Courtesy of Wildlife Care of SoCal
Injured dove | Courtesy of Wildlife Care of SoCal

Mountain lions can suffer a worse fate. Though they are “highly mobile animals, so mostly broadly speaking, they can avoid fire,” according to Dr. Winston Vickers, a wildlife veterinarian at the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center and coauthor of the paper "Puma Response to the Effects of Fire and Urbanization," their already fragile status is further threatened by fire in many ways.

Take P-64, a mountain lion legendary for crossing the 101 freeway and out of the Santa Monica Mountains multiple times via an underground culvert — an impressive and important feat because his introduction from the Simi Hills area to the Santa Monica Mountains is suspected to have brought genetic diversity to the otherwise inbred population of cougars living there (he is believed to be the father of four kittens born in May 2018). Later, P-64 made it across the 118 freeway only to be found dead, “malnourished and with burned paws” during the Woolsey Fire in December of 2018.

National Park Service researchers discovered the remains of P-64, who survived the flames of the Woolsey Fire, but died a few weeks afterwards. Although the cause of death is not known at this time, P-64’s paws were visibly burned. | Public Domain
National Park Service researchers discovered the remains of the mountain lion known as P-64, who survived the flames of the Woolsey Fire, but died a few weeks afterwards. Although the cause of death is not known at this time, P-64’s paws were visibly burned. | National Park Service / Public Domain

Lewis tells a similar story of a bobcat brought in after last year’s Woolsey fire, severely emaciated and missing every claw on her severely burned paws. “She wouldn't have been effective at hunting anymore, so she had to be euthanized. Ethically we can't release anything that's not going to be able to fend for [itself] and find food in the wild,” she explains.

The aftermath of wildfires has a huge impact on an already dwindling population of mountain lions. “Best estimates from the National Park Service and our study suggest that there are fewer than 10 breeding adults in the Santa Monicas and fewer than 20 in the Santa Anas,” says Vickers, who was part of study predicting a “16–21% probability of local extinction” in the Santa Monica Mountains over the next 50 years, mostly due to lack of immigration and genetic diversity. Extinction risk is significantly higher if inbreeding reduces rates of survival for mountain lions there.

The adult mountain lion known as P-64 crosses under a small culvert under the 101 freeway heading south. | National Park Service / Public Domain
The P-64 crosses under a small culvert under the 101 freeway heading south during better days. | National Park Service / Public Domain

Fires also cause a decrease in prey animals and creates issues of crowding, but a study by Vickers and collaborator Megan Jennings shows that the cumulative effect of larger and more frequent fires primarily disturbs vegetation regrowth, which in turn decreases cover for prey animals and less preferable kill-sites for the predators. “Hot fires that decimate the landscape obviously make it a moonscape and there's not much there to eat, so the mountain lions can't really utilize that landscape well,” says Vickers. He points to one report showing that the Cedar Fire of San Diego in 2003 reduced the deer population by 10-20% countywide and resulted in one mountain lion starving to death as a result of her injuries.

Burned trees and ash covered forest floor show the devastation of the Rim Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest in 2013. | U.S. Department of Agriculture / Creative Commons
Burned trees and ash covered forest floor show the devastation of the Rim Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest in 2013. | U.S. Department of Agriculture / Creative Commons

The study of the effects of fire on mountain lions concludes: “When the effects of habitat loss and landscape fragmentation caused by urbanization are coupled with the potential impacts to habitat features by increasing fire frequency, the persistence of healthy puma populations within the region will be threatened.”

When seeing smaller animals in distress due to fire, Lewis advises a hands-off approach unless absolutely necessary. “If someone finds an animal that they think needs help, they can safely catch it by throwing a pillowcase or a towel over it and put it in just a warm, quiet, safe place — like a box or crate — then contact their nearest wildlife rehabilitation center, which may be us.” They do not handle mountain lions at her center, as they are under the jurisdiction of the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

A Western Pond Turtle covered in ash rests near burned log on ridge just west of Lake Eleanor after the Rim Fire. | U.S. Department of Agriculture / Creative Commons
A Western Pond Turtle covered in ash rests near burned log on ridge just west of Lake Eleanor after the Rim Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest in 2013. . | U.S. Department of Agriculture / Creative Commons

She stresses that one should call animal control and keep contact with any wild animal to a minimum.

“In all the animals that we see, they are really stressed by human presence… even if they don't look like they're frightened or they aren't struggling to get away, they might just be in shock and unable to express that.”

Anna Reams of Wildlife SoCal concurs. “We advise people to leave gates open, and if they find a wild animal that does not appear injured, that has found refuge in their yard, to just leave him alone. Keep pets in and avoid the area. He will move on when he feels safe to do so. All animals are affected by these fires and the loss of their homes, just like people are.”

Top image: Mountain ridge ablaze in the Woolsey Fire. | Peter Buschmann via Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture/ Public Domain

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