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Science and Innovations

Earth Notes: BAER Program Looks At Wildlife After Slide Fire

Sherry Sperry

Soon after the Slide Fire burned 22,000 acres in, and around, Oak Creek Canyon in northern Arizona, researchers from the Forest Service Burned Area Emergency Response - or BAER Program - took stock of its impact on sensitive wildlife species.

Oak Creek - and its West Fork - are among the few remaining waterways that still support Narrow Headed Garter Snakes, a now rare predator once found in many southwestern streams.

The Slide Fire burned off much of the vegetation and ground cover that protects soils in Oak Creek Canyon. Because of this, BAER team researchers expect that monsoon rains will cause 2 to 8 times the usual rate of erosion and stream siltation. Some flows have already delivered viscous black sludge into the creek.

When ash from a wildfire enters a stream, it alters the water's acidity and oxygen content. That can kill the fish that Narrow Headed Garter Snakes eat.

To reduce siltation, the Forest Service has been mulching the most erosion-prone burned areas. After intensive post-fire surveys, researchers also captured young Narrow Headed Garter Snakes to breed in captivity at Northern Arizona University, helping preserve the species' genetic diversity.

If ash flows result in fish kills, biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Arizona Game and Fish Department propose to release hatchery-raised native prey fish into Oak Creek. This hasn't happened yet, but the agencies will be closely monitoring fish response to ash flows in the creek for some time to come.