Dr. Jim Gallagher, Texas AgriLife Extension Service wildlife specialist, has seen the effects of many fires in his career.
“I’ve seen the aftermath of dozens of wildfires of all sizes during both my academic and professional career,” said Gallagher, who is stationed at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Uvalde. “And for about 20 years I’ve studied the effects wildfires have on wildlife.”
Gallagher said the most recent wildfires he has investigated to determine their effect on wildlife were the ones from March 14-20, which burned more than 100,000 acres in South Texas. Individual fires burned from 2,500 acres to 70,000 acres, scorching both private and state-owned property in Dimmit, La Salle, Brooks, Hidalgo and Jim Hogg counties.
Fires such as those which have occurred in the past months in South Texas and other parts of the state have the potential to severely impact wildlife, he said, but currently there is little scientific documentation of their effects.
“While some dead animals are found in the aftermath of a fire, many more are seen wandering the landscape in search of food and shelter,” Gallagher said. “And with smaller-scale fires, mobile species populations like those of birds and white-tailed deer don’t normally suffer too greatly due to their ability to move quickly to escape fires and travel to new locations to find food and water.”
Even under harsh burning conditions, less mobile species like small mammals, Texas horned lizards and snakes, fare reasonably well during a fire itself, he added. But while some wildlife is killed during wildfires, more serious losses can come days and even weeks later.
“Even though the majority of animals may escape a fire, many will suddenly find themselves in the middle of thousands of acres of burned-over country side, with a lot less shelter and food than before,” he said. “Those living near the edges of the burned areas can usually travel to find what they need, as can those living in or near unburned patches. But unburned areas tend to be few and far between. Competition for resources in the unburned pockets can be intense, and those resources won’t last very long.”
By example, Gallagher noted, only about 750 acres or about 5 percent of the Chaparral Wildlife Management Area, a 15,000-acre state-owned site in Dimmit and La Salle counties, was unaffected by one of the recent fires. Prior to coming to Uvalde, Gallagher spent 10 years with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department studying the effects of wildfires on wildlife at the Chaparral site.
“I’m carrying over that research and building from it now,” he said. “Among other areas, these most recent wildfires have affected the Chaparral WMA in South Texas, and this has provided additional information we can use to help determine how wildfires may affect wildlife throughout South Texas and other parts of the state.”
According to Gallagher’s research, even rapidly moving wildfires seldom result in large wildlife losses through their immediate death. And ironically, many properties with a smaller amount of forage before a fire, as a result of grazing or other practices, may have more forage after the fire because less of it is burned initially.
Gallagher also noted that normal firebreaks and roads did not do much to stop the recent fires, but areas with less fine fuel, such as grass, were less likely to burn.
“The majority of wildlife exposed to wildfire will see a drastic reduction in their amount of cover and a drastic increase in their exposure to starvation and predation,” he said. “Many animals forced to move to more suitable areas will often have to do so at unusual times and in unusual locations. As a result, many of them find themselves coming in contact with humans and, more specifically, their vehicles.”
According to Gallagher, wildlife’s need for shelter is often under-appreciated. Not only does shelter provide a place to avoid predators, it is also essential to help wildlife conserve energy and water. “Without adequate shelter, wildlife is exposed to the elements, requiring them to use up more energy to stay cool or warm,” he said.
Gallagher said it may take several months before an area has adequately recovered to once again support wildlife, and unless growing conditions are adequate, most burned areas will provide marginal wildlife habitat at best.
“With good growing conditions, the smaller burns will provide good foraging areas for wildlife later this year,” Gallagher said. “But even with good growing conditions, the largest burns are going to be a big challenge for wildlife. Without adequate food and shelter, survival and reproduction will be reduced. And for ranchers dependent on income from livestock and wildlife, this could be a tough situation.”
Gallagher also cautioned landowners about supplemental feeding of wildlife during the forage recovery period. “Supplemental feeding efforts can be a two-edged sword as feeding programs benefit only a small number of species,” he said. “The additional deer and raccoons that survive will only make life tougher for other species later. They will put pressure on plants trying to recover, as well as on smaller species that make up the prey base for other wildlife.”
Even though the shorter-term results of wildfire on wildlife are negative, Gallagher said, sometimes the long-term effects may be positive.
“This is especially true when what was once an unsuitable habitat for a species like quail is opened up by a fire and, as a result, it becomes more suitable for them,” he said.
Ultimately, the recent “hard times” experienced by wildlife in South Texas and other areas of the state are a direct result of the “good times” of last year, Gallagher said.
“Without the good growing conditions early last year there would not have been enough grass to fuel the types of wildfires we have been seeing this year,” he said. “Plants and animals will recover, but there is little we can do to dictate the pace of this recovery.”