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.


  1. Thank's - great article and photo's.I really want to visit the area someday to see the recovery

    1. Thanks Tim! The recovery is still in progress.

  2. I was with KS Forest Service and Hutchinson Fire School cold trailing the northern edge of the fire. We observed two canines, a buck, several turtles and even a couple snakes. Reports on the ground during Wed night said the fire was clocked at 22 feet a second. Like you said, the reptiles were a given. The buck was a huge surprise to many of us, even the guys that have been working Calfire were surprised.

    1. Thanks for the info "unknown." Yes, I heard similar stories from other fire fighters as well.