Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Beautiful Rebound

     This is a continuing series of the fabulous prairie recovery from the big fire. Recovery is not really the best terminology since fire is an integral part of prairie existence. Without fire, prairies become something else, choked with invasive trees and much less rangeland forage for cattle. In this case, the Anderson Creek Fire was so unfortunate for ranchers and people who suffered various losses; but, it was the best thing that could have happened for the prairie. The succession of joyous praise expressed by the native forbs and grasses is hereby further exhibited. All pics are from the burn zone of the big fire and show the amazing, natural regrowth.
Like for most of the Red Hills plants, the fire with the subsequent moisture has stimulated
  incredible flowering. Butterfly milkweed is prominent and provides quite a contrast to the dead cedars in the background. The grass regrowth has been tremendous!

Plains Spiderwort complements a lone Old Plainsman plant.
Like many plants, spiderwort has rarely been so prominent.

Hartweg's Evening Primrose is one of the showiest of
Red Hills wildflowers right now.

Leadplant is blooming profusely in good rangeland right now.
It is also seen in some of the unmowed road ditches.
It is an indicator of land that has not been over-grazed.

A red slope is covered in Cobea Penstamon.
Cobea Penstamon is perhaps the prettiest of Red Hills
wildflowers but that's so subjective isn't it?

Phyllis Scherich, current President of the Kansas Native Plant Society,
is not only an expert photographer but is the go-to expert on Red Hills
plants. As long-time rancher residents in the Red Hills, she and her husband
Dee have biological backgrounds besides first-hand experience at producing 
beef along with their sound land conservation ethic. She practices her skills
on an evening primrose in front of Creamy Milk-vetch.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Anderson Creek Wildlife Losses

     All involved with or affected by the Anderson Creek fire are humbled by the catastrophic event. There is little to diminish the negative human impacts except for the wonderful exception that there were no human physical casualties. Talking with some Red Hills ranchers may, however, reveal hidden emotional scars with some hints of aftermath akin to post traumatic stress syndrome. Better known are the numerous homes and structures, fences, and livestock losses. However, not much is known of wildlife losses other than some observations by those involved directly with fighting the fire and from landowner accounts after the event. It was impossible to try to do an inventory over such a huge area in order to estimate numbers of wildlife carcasses before scavengers and decomposition took their toll. However, common sense and knowledge of some of the biology and behaviors of animals would imply that generally birds fared better than less mobile animals. 
      Reappearance of wild turkey, deer, and even bobwhite quail are noted by many ranchers. Time will tell just how much the populations of these animals were impacted. A reasonable assumption is that it may take a couple or more breeding seasons and immigration from surrounding unaffected areas to regain population levels. However, since rangeland will ultimately be much more productive without cedars, bobwhite in particular should thrive to even better levels then pre-fire. It will logically take more time for other wildlife. Most of the scorched eastern redcedars will not be missed. But, it was unfortunate to lose so many of the desirable hardwoods--the big cottonwoods, burr oaks, and walnuts. Insects, the animal base of the food chain, undoubtedly took a beating which means further delays in the comeback of the whole ecosystem. Mid-sized mammals which could not outrun the fire or find refuges from it were probably most impacted of the larger inhabitants. Coons, opossums, porcupines, squirrels and other critters which would normally find refuge in trees were out of luck. Lizards, snakes, turtles and small mammals not able to find enough under ground refuge were toast. Visiting many areas within the burn reveals an eerie silence. Even though most migrant birds were not back in the area at the time of the fire, the fire still affected them by drastically reducing their food base. There is an obvious lack of insects and therefore birds in the fire zone compared to nearby, unburned prairie. But the plant recovery has been incredible! This post is not about the beautiful recovery. It's about some of the wildlife losses and, particularly, some of the magnificent big hardwoods lost to the flames. While the amazing lush regrowth will hasten recovery of all, let us take a moment to consider some of the wildlife casualties.

Ted Alexander and Heidi stand next to what was recognized as the world record Little (Texas) Walnut, Juglans microcarpa.  Ted and son Brian had taken great measures to clear cedars around this giant in order to protect it from fire. 

 Sadly, the TLC that Ted and Brian had performed was to no avail in the face of this monster fire.
  Another former world champion Little Walnut on the Gentry Ranch got toasted as well, even with the same attempts of clearing of cedars around it. Under less severe fire conditions or a prescribed burn, these big trees would have been fine with the measures taken to protect them.

It doesn't look like much but this was the state record Honey Mesquite tree on the Merrill Ranch.

A fried porcupine. Photo by Roy Beeley
What appears to once have been a bobcat provides stark evidence of no escape
for some. Photo by Brian Alexander

Many snakes, turtles and lizards, such as this
Great Plains Skink, certainly died in the inferno.
Photo by Brian Alexander.
Early reports are that box turtles suffered high mortalities which
is not too surprising considering the swiftness of the fire.
This coyote probably was a victim of the fire. It seemed fitting
to portray the skeleton in black and white.
     The reality is that a LOT of wildlife was obviously killed by this disaster. However, some species and groups of animals will come back more quickly. Some were hardly affected except for the decline in the basic elements in the food chain. Subsequent posts will continue to dwell on the fascinating and positive recovery of the land, its people and the wildlife.