What happens to wildlife in a wildfire?

Tom Turner saw quite a bit of wildlife on a walk Friday morning. He got a good look at a big wild turkey gobbler in full strut and walked right up to a bunch of bobwhite quail.

“It was a nice covey of quail, and I mean a really nice covey, like at least 20 birds,” said Turner, of St. John. “I also saw quite a few deer tracks.”

What made the wild finds even better is that all were found amid the ashes of the 400,000-plus acre fire west of Medicine Lodge. Turner manages a pasture of more than 500 acres in that area, both for livestock and wildlife.

“We have 80 acres of wheat in that pasture and the deer tracks were coming and going from the wheat,” Turner said, “just like they have every other day.”

Things certainly haven’t been as usual for people living in the area of one of the worst prairie fires in Kansas’ history. Houses, outbuildings, assorted farm and ranch equipment, and livestock were destroyed in the blaze that began in Oklahoma on Tuesday and was still spreading and going strong Friday.

Ken Brunson lives near the fire and has been worried about friends, and their ranches, within the burned area for several days. He’ll continue to worry about them until the last flicker of a flame is gone.

Though an avid outdoorsman and wildlife biologist, Brunson said he has never been too worried about the wildlife in the burned area, which measures nearly the size of Sedgwick County.

“With a disastrous and raging fire like this, there will certainly be some wildlife losses,” said Brunson, Nature Conservancy of Kansas Red Hills coordinator. “That will especially be true for animals that can’t go very far, or very fast. But as devastating as it is now (to humans), in the long run it could have some benefits for wildlife.”

Brunson, who has spent a lot of time in that region for more than 30 years, said the fire’s timing was pretty good for wildlife concerns. Many kinds of birds that nest in the region, like several species of grassland sparrows, have yet to migrate back into the area. Many reptiles and amphibians have yet to come up from hibernation. Many kinds of small mammals possibly survived the fire and heat by going into subterranean burrows.

Thursday afternoon, ranch owner Mark Dugan, of Goddard, checked his 2,700-acre spread in Barber County. The day before, nearly every square inch of the ranch had been ablaze. But on Thursdays prairie dogs could be seen scampering through the soot and burned dirt.

Brunson said midsize mammals like possums and raccoons may have suffered some heavier losses since they couldn’t outrun the fire. Larger mammals probably had enough speed and endurance to survive.

“There were a lot of deer moving, really running way ahead of the flames,” Jed Hill, a rancher, said of what he saw while checking property and cattle Wednesday. He noted he’d seen several roadrunners amid the burned pastures while checking fences Thursday morning.

Brunson, who was on his way back from Utah on Friday, said that in almost all prairie blazes there are small areas that don’t burn, like places where the grass is short or wet, or the soil is extremely rocky. He said those islands of unburned prairie are good news for the small birds and animals that found them and even better news for creatures like hawks and coyotes.

“When you have some animals that are very vulnerable (because of limited habitat), there are going to be others that take advantage of the situation,” he said. “I have no doubt things like hawks are going to move in from perimeter areas and have a hey-day for a while, until we get some rain and some of that grass starts growing back.”

But once that grass does begin growing, Brunson said life could get much better for most kinds of prairie wildlife. The habitat could become the best in several years.

“The biggest menace to healthy grasslands down there has been cedar trees for years,” he said. “A lot of those were killed in the fire, though it’s tragic it took this to get it done. This will help the grass grow back healthier than ever. If we get the rain, within a couple of months we could have enough regrowth of good grass for some great nesting cover for birds that survived. They can bounce back quickly.”

Though he’s optimistic the grasslands will recover and thrive, Brunson said trips to the region over the next few days will be that of a friend helping area ranchers and not a biologist studying the fire’s impact on wildlife.

“We have more important things to worry about for now,” he said of wildlife concerns, adding that the fires could burn for several days. “These things aren’t over down there, until they’re completely over.”

Michael Pearce: 316-268-6382, @PearceOutdoors

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