Michael Pearce

Mother Nature will be tested in healing burned prairies

Deer that survived Monday's fire in Clark County try to stay near what little cover is around. When magnified, most of the 19 in the herd showed scars from being burned.
Deer that survived Monday's fire in Clark County try to stay near what little cover is around. When magnified, most of the 19 in the herd showed scars from being burned. Wichita Eagle

Mother Nature’s resiliency has amazed me many times. Streams, prairies, forests, fish and wildlife populations can so quickly heal from serious hurt.

Last week I witnessed a landscape that left me wondering how nature will ever heal garish scars that spread to the horizon, and many horizons beyond that one, from wildfires.

As Greg Gardiner, the rancher taking me through a landscape that looked more like the moon, said, “I know how it sounds, but it’s literally worse than I ever could have imagined.”

It wasn’t what I saw, it’s what I did not see. There were no signs of life. Mile after mile after we toured what had been one of this family’s most productive series of pastures.

For four hours, we rolled slowly through pastures that had been knee- to waist-deep in grass through last weekend. By Wednesday afternoon all that was left was ash, toasted dirt and charred carcasses.

The loss of thousands of head of livestock, and the ability to managed and graze any more cattle until millions of dollars of fences can be repaired or replaced, was the real tragedy of the wildfires in Clark and Comanche counties. Grass will need time to grow enough to be grazed.

So many like Gardiner had a generation’s worth of work, or more, burned away within a few hours. It may be the largest agricultural disaster in Kansas history.

But I can’t help wonder how Mother Nature will respond.

It took three hours before we saw a hawk. A horned lizard was the only wildlife we saw moving across the ground the first two hours. We finally saw a herd of 19 deer. Some carried deep burns. I’m sure some of those have since died. Carcasses of many more littered the prairie. The sight of so many dead coyotes, the most cunning form of wildlife in Kansas, was enough to know the devastation.

Part of the shock was because I know what that country can be like for wildlife. The same lush prairie grasses Gardiner managed for world-class cattle was world-class habitat (not an exaggeration) for bobwhite quail, huge whitetail bucks, lesser prairie chickens and myriads of non-game animals.

A local friend who hunted that ranch and many others in the area said last season’s quail population had been the best for 30 years over much of the region. Walking hunters often saw two or more coveys per hour. Driving all day, the same friend saw one lone quail on Tuesday. One. We saw no meadowlarks, cottontails, snakes, sparrows.

In moderation, fire has its place on the prairie. It leads to better grasslands, which leads to better wildlife habitat. But I’d never imagined a fire like this one.

The Anderson Creek fire in 2016 didn’t kill all wildlife. This year’s fire was so fast and ferocious it seemed to simply annihilate all kinds of life.

The wildlife needed to repopulate the area may be as many as 10 miles away from some scorched areas.

The region could be starting almost completely over at all levels, from insects and tiny rodents to jackrabbits and even coyotes.

The natural reconstruction of the landscape will start from the ground up with the return of the grass. Even something so basic may not be too easy.

There is little to no rain in sight for southwest Kansas. Meteorologists predict average rainfall, or below, for the next few months. Heat, high winds and even the hard rains that could lead to widespread erosion could quickly make this bad thing worse. Maybe much worse.

Hope and pray Mother Nature helps itself as it did last summer in Barber County with some well-timed rains.

Even with those ideal conditions, it will be several years before wildlife in that area can even be a shadow of what it was before the fires devastated the area on Monday.

This time, Mother Nature has her hands full.

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