What happens to wildlife after wildfires? The California State Project aims to find out

A red-tailed hawk and two turkey eagles soared overhead as Erin Weiner walked down a dirt trail into the protected habitat grounds near Orange County’s limestone valley.

Wiener, 24, is a passionate hiker. The Long Beach resident is also a scientist. And on this trip she had a mission.

When the Weiner reached a steel pole sticking out of the dry brush, she opened a metal crate installed near the top, flicked off a few dozen sharks that had made the crate their home, and a simple trail camera appeared. Inside the motion-activated camera, there was a memory card with thousands of photos taken over the past month – a major prize for a biologist with a passion for wildlife conservation.

While pursuing a master’s degree in biology at Cal State Long Beach, Weiner studies areas of eastern Orange County and the Santa Cruz Mountains that have been devastated by wildfires in recent years. Its goal is to answer a series of questions that have not received much attention before by researchers:

How long do mammals – from squirrels to deer to mountain lions – take to get away from an area after a wildfire? Where do they go in the meantime? Which animals come back first and why? And is there anything conservationists can do to help get wildlife, and thus the entire ecosystem, back to normal faster?

There is a reason not to conduct consistent research on these questions, notes Ted Stankovic, a biology professor at California State Long Beach who advises the Wiener Project. That’s because getting answers requires a combination of advance preparation, patience, and the kind of “luck” that no one actually wants but clearly needs if they’re going to get solid data from “before”, “during” and “after” a wildfire.

The Irvine Ranch Preserve, which manages more than 30,000 acres of urban wilderness in Orange County, has had dozens of tracking cameras that have been capturing wildlife in valley areas since 2007, said Nathan Gregory, vice president of the nonprofit organization. Gregory said understanding His agency so far for how local wildlife is responding to wildfires has been a mixture of evidence and anecdotal assumptions. So he said the sanctuary happily shared its archived footage with Weiner in hopes of gaining a tough science to explain the animal’s behaviour.

Mammal Lab at Cal State Long Beach has had 13 of its cameras in the wilderness along the Santiago Canyon Trail since 2017, as part of a larger effort to study urban wildlife. Together, cameras from the school and county give Weiner access to large amounts of “past” data.

In late 2020, . was released Silverado And the Warranty Fires engulfed eastern Orange County, burning nearly 20,000 acres — including many areas covered by existing trail cameras. In a few cases, the flames engulfed the cameras. But while destroying the devices, a team from Mammal Lab was able to recover data from the cameras’ memory cards, giving Weiner access to unique data from “during” a wildfire.

Shortly before the Bond fire broke out, in December 2020, Weiner said a camera near the Modjeska Valley caught a nervously passing fox. Then, when the fire started, the same fire ignited the camera, which took three pictures, 10 seconds apart. The three images showed the flame rushing in from the west, then engulfing the area, and eventually moving out of the frame. It took less than 30 seconds for the fire to devour the expanse of Earth in the camera’s 35-degree field of view.

Just a few hours after the fire broke out, Wiener said the same camera caught a rabbit sitting on the charred remains of the site. This is her first “after” shot. And it’s been collecting more of that “later” data since then.

Irvine Ranch regularly passes along updated feeds from its cameras. To get recent images from Mammal Lab’s 13 cameras, Weiner takes a Cal State Long Beach once a month, carries a worn out fanny pack over one shoulder and travels to each location, replacing the camera’s rechargeable batteries and replacing full memory cards with empty ones. .

Wiener then takes that data back to Mammal Lab, where undergraduate students help her sort and tag all of the photos they take. She said the work of sorting can be tedious, since there are a lot of false shots where the camera is triggered by a blow brush or a bird. But then there are moments when you see a family of coyotes, a curious bobcat, or a disguised mountain lion crossing the frame, and Wiener said it inspires her again.

There is a similar situation in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Wilmers Lab at UC Santa Cruz, where Weiner trained in studying seals before starting her master’s program at Cal State Long Beach, has had trail cameras in the area since 2014. In August 2020, a massive CZU Lightning Complex fire broke out through the mountains. So, as part of her research, Wiener is also able to compare wildlife data from that area before and after the wildfires passed.

Wildlife pictures are just one piece of a complex puzzle that Winner tries to piece together.

For example, Weiner noted that it can take up to seven years for plant life after a wildfire to fully renew. In the absence of native plants, invasive plants such as mustard and wild oats can spread quickly. This is not good for animals like ground squirrels, who need an open space to observe and warn each other of predators. And because coyotes, foxes, and cats all feed on ground squirrels, anything that hinders prey numbers can be a struggle for those larger mammals.

To pinpoint the streak of turmoil, she plans to collect photos until December. Next, the analysis phase of the project will begin, using open source data from agencies like NASA and the Forest Service to layer information about burning areas, elevation, precipitation and temperature. From there, it will attempt to draw conclusions about the animal’s behavior that can help guide future wildlife management operations.

The Irvine Ranch Conservancy hopes to use the information collected by Weiner, for example, to guide and prioritize habitat restoration projects, Gregory said.

This is the goal that prompted Wiener, who has been passionate about nature and wildlife since she was a child in the Bay Area, exploring the outdoors as a Girl Scout and camping with her family.

As an undergraduate at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Weiner helped study how road noise and artificial light affect bluebird development and how heat and oxygen levels affect barnacles. This definitive research has been halted due to the coronavirus pandemic, since she finished college in Spring 2020. So Weiner said she is keen to complete this project, with the goal of completing her research on wildfires in the next two years before she pursues her career. in wildlife management.

Fortunately, Weiner was not alone in this business.

With California facing frequent and devastating wildfires caused by climate change and outdated forest management practices, more attention is being paid to how wildfires are affecting local ecosystems.

Chloe Nouzille, a master’s degree at UCLA, uses tracking cameras study How wildlife is recovering in the Simi Hills and Santa Monica Mountains after the 2018 Woolsey Fire. Kendall Calhoun, a doctoral student at UC Berkeley, is search Effects of fires and other events caused by climate change in the East Bay region.

Weiner is in contact with fellow scientists. She said they plan to publish their own research first, then hope to potentially combine forces and learn common threads they can analyze, with a common goal of painting a broad picture of how wildfires are affecting California’s wildlife.

Stankovic, Wiener’s advisor, said the public can help with these efforts in several ways.

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