GROVELAND, Calif. — The Rim fire that scorched a huge swath of Sierra Nevada forests also severely altered the habitat that is home to several of California’s rarest animals: the great gray owl, the Sierra Nevada red fox and the Pacific fisher.
The fire burned 257,000 acres of High Sierra wilderness straddling the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park that harbors a geographically isolated and genetically distinct clan of roughly 200 great gray owls.
The blaze also came within 12 miles of 10 breeding pairs of the subspecies of red fox clinging to survival in the cold, steep slopes above the tree line, raising fears they could have been eaten by coyotes trying to escape the smoke and flames.
The existence of the foxes, which were thought to have been wiped out in the 1920s, was confirmed in 2010. They are currently under consideration for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Federal wildlife biologists are also concerned about the loss of potential habitat for the Pacific fisher, a member of the weasel family. Pacific fishers, members of an isolated Southern Sierra group of about 500 individuals that live in dense old-growth forests south of Yosemite’s Merced River, are under consideration for federal listing.
“In the Rim fire, only birds that could fly the farthest and animals that could run the fastest survived,” said John Buckley, executive director of the nonprofit Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center. “It killed squirrels and bears. For animals of which only a handful exist, it could be especially tragic.”
The exact toll on wildlife will not be known until biologists are allowed to survey severely burned areas, which, for safety reasons, could remain closed for more than a year, federal forest officials said.
Even without that information, federal agencies are developing post-fire management strategies such as reforestation and salvage logging projects to protect certain species from extinction. That effort has been interrupted by the federal government shutdown, which furloughed federal wildlife biologists.
Preliminary reports from the fire area indicate that the blaze destroyed or damaged dozens of nesting and roosting areas for spotted owls, goshawks and great gray owls — the largest owl in North America. They stand 2 feet tall and have a 5-foot wingspan, with piercing yellow eyes accented by large facial disks.
Roy Bridgman, wildlife biologist for the Stanislaus National Forest, said he “visited a great owl nest that had been around for 20 years and it was collapsed. For a species with a tiny population, any loss at all is a big hit.”
On a recent weekday, however, John Keane, a U.S. Forest Service research wildlife ecologist, found a reason for cautious optimism at an expanse of lush meadowlands about 10 miles west of Yosemite where he has studied great gray owls for 15 years.
The meadows edged with 80-foot-tall cedars and ponderosa pines were spared by the fire, which began burning in August. Peering through binoculars and methodically scanning the treetops, Keane said, “If I had to put money on it, I’d say there are still owls here.”
Future research will help determine whether enough of the owls survived in the region to sustain the state-endangered raptor.
Two months after the fire raged across one of the wildest areas in the state, rare and common animals alike continue searching for food and shelter in, as one resident put it, “patches of green, wherever they can find them.”
Lill Mcleod, general store manager at Camp Mather, a tourist destination about a mile away from the meadowlands patrolled by great gray owls, said, “Starving animals including countless bobcats and at least four mountain lions have been coming after the squirrels and chipmunks in the camp.”
“The heartbreaker,” she added, “was a horribly injured, emaciated bear we found staggering along a road here. He couldn’t see or hear or smell because his head was so badly burned. He had a broken paw and kept wiping his face in the dirt.”
That bear, along with an injured cub found a few days later, was euthanized by California Department of Fish and Wildlife game wardens. Three other adult bears were found dead nearby, Mcleod said.
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Local populations of bears, deer and other relatively common animals are expected to recover. But prospects for the black-backed woodpecker, a candidate for listing under the California Endangered Species Act, remain uncertain.
The woodpecker plays a key role in post-fire forest ecology by creating nesting holes in snags for other birds and mammals such as Western bluebirds and squirrels, environmentalists say. It is also threatened by the salvaging of burned trees.
Those competing interests are already playing out on fire-stripped slopes where the woodpeckers are feasting on wood-boring beetles that began swarming dead trees while they were still smoldering.
Beneath the woodpeckers, crews with chain saws and big-rig trucks were removing snags and salvaging timber from roads and utility corridors.
“We’re looking for silver linings,” Bridgman said with a sigh. “But we’re caught between extremes.”
©2013 Los Angeles Times
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PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CALIF-RIMFIRE
GRAPHIC (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): fire wildlife