For an endangered animal, a fire or hurricane can mean the end

November 1, 2017
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When lighting struck the Pinaleno Mountains in southeast Arizona around 2:45 p.m. on June 7, igniting a 48,000-acre fire that reduced an ancient forest to blackened poles and stumps, a scurry of rare squirrels — 217 of the 252 left in existence — disappeared.

Some were fitted with radio transmitters that burned to ash; conservationists deduced their fates. They hoped others had managed to escape.

But for those 35 survivors — biological remnants from the last ice age — Jeff Humphrey, a spokesperson with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, was deeply concerned.

“Most of them have lost the cones they’ve stored for their winter nourishment,” Humphrey said. “How do we get them through this winter?”

The Mount Graham red squirrel is among more than a dozen rare or threatened species who either perished or suffered habitat loss during recent hurricanes and wildfires across the United States. Here are portraits for some others.

Southwest Fires

The red squirrel was not the only creature affected during the Arizona wildfires, intensified by heat waves in the state’s south. After the fire, biologists and wildlife officers rescued Gila and Apache trout from forest streams before the water became clogged with ash, which happens when normal forest ground cover isn’t there to filter the runoff.

The Mexican spotted owl, which lives in wooded and canyon areas throughout New Mexico and southern Utah, was also vulnerable. “Its primary threat is wildfires, but it’s far more abundant,” Humphrey said.

California Wildfires

In Southern California, the mountain yellow-legged frog, of which there were just 400 living in remote, drying streams in the San Gabriel, San Bernardino and San Jacinto mountains, could face a hard winter after fires destroyed their habitat. Dr. Bruce Stein, a conservation scientist at the National Wildlife Federation, said he also worried for the red-legged frog in wine country, as well as for endangered salmon and steelhead living in the Russian River (as in Arizona, sediment flowing into the water could harm the fish).

One of North America’s rarest species — the Amargosa vole — also lost part of its remaining habitat in a September fire in the Mojave National Preserve. About 50 of the few hundred remaining mammals perished, said Janet Foley, a professor at the University of California Davis Veterinary Medicine protection program. “It killed off all the vegetation,” she said, “and they need to live in that.”

Hurricane Harvey

Just five of the 29 rare prairie chickens being tracked at the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge near Houston survived Hurricane Harvey. The bird — known for its funky mating dance — was already critically endangered. During the last century, its prairie grassland habitat in Texas and Louisiana was plowed to create space for farmlands and cities.

Prairie-chicken is seen in this undated handout photo from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“It was a devastating impact,” said Mike Morrow, the refuge’s lead biologist. “The good news is we have an established captive breeding program,” he said. “Had it not been for that captive flock, it could have resulted in near extinction.”

Whooping cranes “dodged a bullet” Stein said, when Harvey made landfall at their winter spot in Aransas County. At that time, the bird was breeding in Canada, but had it been in Texas, the species could have been wiped out, said Stein. “The concern is what effect the hurricane may have had on the habitat,” he added. Ocelots (a small Texan cat) and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, which conservationists feared would be affected, also managed to survive the storm.

Hurricane Irma

Florida’s Keys are what Stein called a “biological hot spot” with many rare and endangered species, including the Miami blue, Schaus swallowtail and Bartram’s Hairstreak butterflies, the snail kite, Barbuda warbler, green sea and loggerhead turtles and Key Deer.

The Key deer is “a really charismatic animal,” said Brian Hires, a spokesperson for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Fewer than 1,000 Key deer are left in existence. All but 33 survived the storm, but may face challenges with restricted access to fresh drinking water. The Miami blue butterfly (there are just 100 individual ones left) are only “hanging on in a couple of Keys,” Stein said.

Endangered Key Deer in a puddle following Hurricane Irma in Big Pine Key, Florida, US.

Hurricane Irma also cut off power to a South Florida Grasshopper sparrow aviary where the species, teetering on the edge of extinction, was successfully bred in captivity for the first time last year. Hours away from their backup generator shutting down, a service truck delivered 100 gallons of fuel to the facility. The grasshopper sparrow chicks survived. The fate of the Bahama oriole, found only in North Andros, South Andros, and Mangrove Cay, is still unknown.

Hurricane Maria

In 1989, Hurricane Hugo killed almost half the wild population of Puerto Rico’s native parrots — the only remaining bird of its type in the United States. The animal — with white-ringed eyes and a red stripe above its beak — had, by this year, recovered to about 500 wild and captive individuals. While most of those at the Iguaca Aviary in Puerto Rico’s rain forest survived, the fate of those wild birds in the Rio Abajo and El Yunque forests is unknown.