A Modern Day Phoenix

“Phoenix,” an immature Golden Eagle
Aquila chrysaetos
Courtesy Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah (WRCNU.org)

Elk Bath
From a 2000 fire in the
Bitterroot National Forest in Montana

Courtesy Wikimedia &
USDA Forest Service
John McColgan, Photographer

Hi, I’m Holly Strand.

You may have heard about the golden eagle nestling that was badly burned during a recent Utah wildfire. Its nest was totally destroyed, but the little eagle had fallen to the ground and survived. After the fire, he was found by Kent Keller, a volunteer for Utah’s Div. of Natural Resources, who had banded the young eagle a month before. The eagle was dehydrated—his feathers, face, and feet were badly burned. So Keller obtained a permit from wildlife officials to intervene. Now in the care of the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah the eagle is recovering rapidly. Even so, it will take a while for the damaged feathers to be replaced by healthy new ones. Phoenix–as is he was aptly named–won’t learn to fly for at least another year.

With this and other fire-related stories in the news, I‘ve been wondering about the fate of animals caught in wildfires. Scientific observations of animal behavior during fire events are rare. But by conducting post-fire surveys, and comparing results with unburned areas, some researchers have been able to piece together an idea of who survives, who dies and who thrives.

Obviously, faster and more mobile animals have the advantage. Birds can fly away and most mammals can outrun the spreading flames. Spring fires can be disastrous, destroying birds who haven’t fledged –like Phoenix– or mammals who are still too immature to escape. Fortunately, fires are more frequent in mid to late summer when little ones have matured.

If a fire moves through an area quickly, without superheating the ground, dormant animals or those hiding in burrows can survive. The surrounding soil provides plenty of insulation. Soil also protects most soil macrofauna and the pupae of many insects.

Animals that live their lives totally or partially in the water may not suffer at all during a fire. However, smaller bodies of water, such as streams, can quickly heat up fairly quickly. Oxygen loss is a problem as well. And fire-fighting chemicals dumped from the air can end up in water, killing fish, frogs and other animals.

Indirectly, the alteration of habitat by fire can also restructure animal populations. Interestingly, there are quite a lot of animals that benefit from post-fire habitats. For example, the insect population above ground may plummet during a fire, but then increase above pre-fire levels when fresh young plants start to grow back. Burned trees are attractive to certain beetles as breeding sites. An increase in beetles is a windfall for the woodpeckers that devour them. Swallows and flycatchers use burned dead trees as perch sites. They survey from on high and then swoop to catch their insect dinner. Seed eating birds like Clark’s Nutcracker, gobble up conifer seeds when cones open in response to fire.

Among mammals, ground squirrels, pocket gophers and deer mice generally increase after severe fires. Even large herbivores such as pronghorn or deer may benefit from the increased food and nutrition on recent burns. In turn, predators of these creatures enjoy a bumper crop as well.

For images of Phoenix the recovering golden eagle and a link to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah go to www.wildaboututah.org.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Holly Strand.


Images: Courtesy Wikimedia, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, Gavin Keefe Schaefer and Dave Menke, US FWS images.fws.gov
Text: Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading:

Baker, William L. 2009. Fire ecology in Rocky Mountain Landscapes. Washington, DC: Island Press.https://islandpress.org/ip/books/book/islandpress/F/bo7019409.html

Bradley, Anne F.; Noste, Nonan V.; Fischer, William C. 1992. Fire ecology of forests and woodlands in Utah. Gen. Tech. Rep. INT-287. Ogden, UT: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Intermountain Research Station. https://www.fs.fed.us/rm/pubs_int/int_gtr287.pdf

Hutto, RL. 1995. Composition of bird communities following stand-replacement fires in northern Rocky-Mountain (USA) conifer forests in Conservation Biology Volume: 9 Issue: 5 Pages: 1041-1058 https://www.fsl.orst.edu/ltep/Biscuit/Biscuit_files/Refs/Hulto%20CB1995%20fire%20birds.pdf

Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah https://wrcnu.org/

The History of Our National Forests

Civilian Conservation Corps
enrollees clearing the land
for soil conservation
Photo Courtesy National Archive
Franklin D. Roosevelt Library (NLFDR)

Terraces near Mount Nebo trailhead
Payson Canyon
Photo Courtesy & Copyright © 2011
Lyle W. Bingham, Photographer

Albert Potter
Photo Courtesy USDA Forest Service
The Greatest Good
A Forest Service Centennial Film

Hi, this is Mark Larese-Casanova from the Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.

Warm springtime weather brings clear trails up in the mountains, and hiking through the shade of Douglas-fir on a warm weekend day had me wondering about Utah’s National Forests and how they came to be.

Back in the days of the early pioneers, Utah’s mountains were recognized as resources for survival, providing clean water for drinking and irrigation and lumber for building homes. The high mountain pastures were also valuable summer forage for livestock. In the late 1840’s, Parley Pratt declared, “The supply of pasture for grazing animals is without limit in every direction. Millions of people could live in these countries and raise cattle and sheep to any amount.” Many settlers shared this view, and unmanaged grazing resulted in deteriorated rangelands in just 20 to 30 years. By 1860, some Utah towns were experiencing regular flooding and heavy erosion due to insufficient vegetation to stabilize the soil. Unregulated wholesale timber harvesting during the same period also contributed to these conditions.

In 1881, the US Department of Agriculture’s Division of Forestry (later renamed the Forest Service) was established, and its first job was to gather information about the condition of the nation’s forests. In 1902, Albert F. Potter, who was the inspector of grazing for the General Land Office, conducted a survey of potential Forest Reserves in Utah. Potter stated that “the ranges of the State have suffered from a serious drought for several years past, and this, in addition to the very large number of livestock, especially of sheep, has caused the summer range to be left in a very barren…condition.”

The demand for lumber and wool during the First World War again led to increased timber harvesting and grazing on our forests. During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to help implement conservation projects across the country. The CCC was fundamental in re-foresting much of the Wasatch and Uinta Mountain ranges, planting over three million trees in nine years.

Utah’s Forest Reserves were created in the years soon after Albert Potter’s surveys, and were gradually combined into Utah’s seven National Forests that now cover approximately 10,500,000 acres, or about 20%, of the state. Grazing and timber harvesting still occur on much of Utah’s National Forests, but our practices are supported by scientific research and over a century of experience, ensuring more sustainable multiple use and management of our forests today.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Mark Larese-Casanova.

Images: Courtesy National Archives, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library
              and Courtesy and Copyright © 2011 Lyle W. Bingham
Text:     Mark Larese-Casanova, Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.

Additional Reading:

Baldridge, K.W. The Civilian Conservation Corps in Utah. Utah History To Go.

Prevedel, D.A., and C.M. Johnson. 2005. Beginnings of Range Management: Albert F. Potter, First Chief of Grazing, U.S. Forest Service, and a Photographic Comparison of his 1902 Forest Reserve Survey in Utah with Conditions 100 Years Later. United States Department of Agriculture, US Forest Service. R4-VM 2005-01. https://www.fs.fed.us/rm/pubs_other/r4_vm20005_01.pdf