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Tales of survival: Wildlife escapes wrath of summer fires
Before Colorado’s wildfires burned neighborhoods, they raged through forest habitats, separating does from fawns, splitting the Pikes Peak herd of bighorn sheep and forcing at least one bear to wander through burned areas looking for unburned havens.
Nonetheless, it seems the wildlife of the Pikes Peak region emerged from the Waldo Canyon fire relatively unscathed, said Michael Seraphin, a spokesman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. While devastating in some regards, the fire gave birth to a new — and what might be ideal — habitat for deer and other animals, Seraphin said.
“Anything that could run, ran. Anything that could fly, flew. And anything that could burrow, burrowed,” Seraphin said.
As of late last year, the division hadn’t compiled any official reports of animal casualties, and only the future will reveal the long-term impact the fires had on wildlife. But Seraphin has collected a few tales of survival.
Seraphin was at the Colorado Springs Police Operations Center on June 29, three days after the Waldo Canyon fire exploded, tripling in size and burning nearly 350 homes. On that Friday, fire officials were curious about the fate of a herd of bighorn sheep that usually wandered the mining scar on the western hillsides. Seraphin received clearance to send a group into the fire zone to investigate.
“They went in there and they observed the sheep that live on the scar, they had broken into three groups,” Seraphin said.
One group traveled down to the Glen Eyrie castle, another stayed on the scar and the third wandered north onto Air Force Academy property. Later, members of the herd converged, all sheep accounted for, Seraphin said.
Although animals fled from the rapidly moving fire and the June 26 firestorm, some, such as the sheep, quickly returned to scorched areas.
“It goes counter-intuitively to what humans would imagine,” Seraphin said. “They had this thing where they found the way to escape. How and where they went during the active flames is unknown, but they somehow survived.”
The Waldo Canyon fire, like the High Park fire near Fort Collins, had pockets of unburned land inside the fire line, where animals could seek a safe haven. One radio-collared bear wandered throughout the burn area during the High Park fire, Seraphin said.
“During the entire fire event, that bear never left the fire zone. It escaped the flames,” he said. “That probably happened with the deer as well. They moved to escape the flames, but not necessarily flee the zone.”
The Waldo Canyon fire struck during a fragile time in the deer life cycle, according to Seraphin.
“What we noticed is that (the fire) was right after the prime birthing time for deer,” he said. “Most of the fawns had already been born. Ones that were born early were just barely big enough to be able to escape the fire. Ones that were just born were not. It’s likely some of them perished.”
Young, vulnerable fawns — those three weeks old and younger — rely on a unique life-saving tactic. In the face of danger, they play dead, lying motionless while their mother stands away from them. These were the fawns that mostly likely did not survive the blaze; in that extreme situation, a mother would abandon her young and flee for her own life, Seraphin said.
Two fawns were found during the fire, one of which was rescued from the smoldering remains of a Mountain Shadows basement by Pueblo firefighters. Although the fawn and its rescuers were awarded much local and national attention, it did not survive, Seraphin said. Its hooves were too badly burned, and it was euthanized along with another severely burned fawn. The body of one adult deer was found near the fire zone, and it appeared to have died from smoke inhalation.
Although deer have a regular presence in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood, their numbers should be down this winter and spring because of fire casualties.
Although condemning for young fawns, the fire’s destruction should provide ideal habitat for deer, come spring. With some of the old forest growth removed, more moisture and sunlight will reach plants on the forest floor — perfect feeding for deer.
“The habitat will have a better deer habitat in the long term,” Seraphin said. “There will be better growth. It’s the natural cycle of fires.”
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