Recovery from the hundreds of thousands of acres burning in two western Colorado wildfires this month alone will be harder for the people on the Western Slope than it will be for the wildlife.
“We’ve been getting a lot of questions about the bighorn sheep in Glenwood Canyon,” said Randy Hampton, Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesperson. “If you’ve ever seen one run up a mountain, you’ll know that they are well-adapted to get out of the way and move as they need to.”
He said wild animals have been dealing with wildfires for hundreds of thousands of years.
“Four hundred years ago, fires would start with nothing to stop it but winter,” he said. “In the 1800s, there would be fires that would burn a million acres, and I’ve heard stories of fires so significant it blotted out the sun.
“Wildlife is very well-adapted to dealing with it,” Hampton added. “Individual animals will be lost, but it’s not a significant impact most of the time.”
The long-term impacts to some wildlife can be more harmful than the short-term but, for others, those impacts can be beneficial.
FISH SPECIES ON THE WESTERN SLOPE
Though water may seem like the safest place to be during a wildfire, for the fish living there that is often not the case.
The post-fire ecosystem can be harsh.
“Fires themselves don’t have an immediate effect on fish species, but fish might be the most negatively impacted species from wildfire,” Hampton said. “After the fire is out and the rain comes, all that ash washes into creeks.”
Ash from wildfires, like what has been seen across Mesa County these past few weeks, can be very harmful to fish. Toxins from ash and fire retardant can be dangerous, and heavy rains after a fire can send the debris, ash and sediments to the streams, making it difficult for fish to survive and reproduce. Ash can become cemented at the bottom of the creek bed and kill their sources of food as well.
“The ash can also be so heavy that it muddies up the creek and suffocates,” Hampton said.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials have been monitoring rivers and waterways across the northwest and southwest parts of the state as high temperatures and wildfires have put strain on the animals that live there.
Creeks in the Pine Gulch Fire area are home to several native fish, such as Colorado River cutthroat trout, bluehead sucker, mottled sculpin and speckled dace. Grizzly Creek is an important spawning tributary to the Colorado River for rainbow trout, brown trout and mountain whitefish.
Trout, a cold water species, become stressed when water temperatures rise above 70 degrees, according to Parks and Wildlife. They may in turn be more susceptible to depredation and disease as they seek areas of refuge with cooler waters. Wildlife officials recommend anglers avoid fishing during the warmest parts of the day, until water temperatures cool and river flows increase.
In a press release sent out earlier this month, John Alves, senior aquatic biologist for Parks and Wildlife in Durango, asked anglers to carry a thermometer to check the water temperatures and, if it is 70 degrees or above, to stop fishing. He also encouraged fishing at lakes and streams at higher elevations.
Hampton said the heat and statewide drought has had more to do with the rising temperatures in the rivers than the wildfires.
BIRDS ALSO IMPACTED
Another species of wildlife that can be more negatively impacted from wildfires is birds.
“People think birds can just fly away,” Hampton said. “However, spring and summer is really a nesting season for birds and those nests can be destroyed by fire.”
If the fire occurs early enough in the season, some of the recently hatched birds can be too young to fly away.
Hampton said the Pine Gulch Fire started late enough in the year that the younger birds should have matured enough to fly.
“Ground nesting birds can be especially impacted,” he added.
One species wildlife officials will be tracking in the aftermath of the fire is the greater sage-grouse. Found only in western Colorado and southeastern Utah, the threatened species is protected under the Endangered Species Act as bird counts are already being closely monitored.
“As a ground-nesting species, it will take time to re-establish that habitat,” Hampton said. “We will work to rehabilitate that habitat that best works for the greater sage-grouse, but we don’t know what that will be yet. We’ve got to get back in there to see what the impacts have been.”
It may not be all bad news for the sage-grouse, however.
“The fire tends to move very fast and that fast movement leaves places that are untouched. Those untouched islands can be very valuable for wildlife,” Hampton said. “We are also at the stage where the birds can move away.”
While fire can create dangerous conditions for fish and birds, it can have positive habitat impacts for big game species like deer and elk. Bears and the other wildlife living in western Colorado can see several benefits from wildfires like this.
The vegetation and food sources these animals live off of tend to spring back to life after a fire moves through.
“Bears rely on berries and when those berry bushes get older they aren’t as good… younger berry bushes produce higher quality and quantity,” Hampton said. “Grasses, forbs and plants of all kinds will spring up after a fire. This ecosystem has evolved with fire in it.”
A lot of the land that burned will be hugely beneficial from a wildlife perspective.
“It’s a natural part of the western ecosystem,” he said. “There will inevitably be losses but the benefits for many species outweigh the losses.”
Negative impacts to reptiles and amphibians, such as lizards and frogs, are also minimal because those animals have learned to adapt to fire over thousands of years.
Two ways the public can help officials with the post-wildfire recovery are surveying the animals and replanting seeds.
“We’ll need people to help with survey work. Spend a day, write down what you see,” Hampton said. “We will also do work to replant some of these affected areas. Grasses will spring up on their own, shrubberies that won’t, we’ll replant to benefit wildlife.”