Game & Fish and Fish and Wildlife employees take preventive rescue precautions by removing endangered Chiricahua leopard frogs from potential forest fire harm.

Apache, State and Federal Agencies Protect Small and Slow-moving Critters from Wildfires

Lee Allen
9/15/11

If you’re old enough to remember early Walt Disney movies, you probably remember the one where flames from a forest fire approached and Thumper the rabbit needlessly advised Bambi the deer—"Run, Bambi, run!" Larger mammals need little encouragement to flee approaching wildfire, but some smaller or less agile critters may need help in getting out of harms way.

So it was when the largest wilderness blaze in Arizona’s history, the 6-week-long, 538,000-acre Wallow Fire consumed everything in its path—including thousands of acres on the White Mountain and San Carlos Apache reservations.

Two members of the White Mountain Apache Tribe’s Wildlife & Outdoor Recreation Division, Director John Caid and Fisheries Biologist Tim Gatewood, took quick action concerning what may be a major part of their future tribal revenue—restoration of the endangered Apache trout. The Apache trout was the first fish ever listed on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Endangered Species List.

“The burn went right to the waters edge at the stream holding pure-strain Apache trout,” said Gatewood. “The waters quickly started filling with woody debris and black ash and even as we were taking water quality samples, fish were starting to go belly up. We needed to act fast.”

A rescue crew from the tribe’s Department of Fish & Wildlife Management sprang into action, electroshocking trout in the contaminated Soldier Spring, placing them into buckets and transferring them to a tank truck that headed out of the burn area. The 50 heirloom fish were transplanted into pristine waters as a holding action.

“We did the transplant just to be on the safe side, being overly cautious in case the fire increased and everything was at risk of being whacked out" Gatewood said. "Now we have an emergency supply in reserve while the summer rains came to wash the original stream clean of toxic ash. Our next move is to go back and do a fish population survey and water quality sampling to see what effects the Wallow Fire had on the present stream population. Once everything is deemed safe, the original population will be moved back into its original home and the tribe’s on-going Apache trout restoration project will continue.”

Off-reservation rescue efforts involving the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Arizona Game & Fish Department and sportsmen/conservationist volunteers took place in a number of other locations.

Facing shallow water conditions and a likelihood that post-fire rains would fill creek pools with ash infestation that would negatively impact water chemistry, Fish and Wildlife staff members from San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge used nets to salvage several hundred Yaqui chub, Yaqui longfin dace, and Mexican stonerollers out of creeks impacted by the Horseshoe Two Fire.

The creeks in question were the only places in the state, outside of the refuge itself, where the fish existed. Now being cared for at temporary quarters at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, the fish will be returned to their creek homes when water quality improves.

Fish weren't the only creatures saved; approximately 50 once-endangered-now-threatened Chiricahua leopard frogs (and an equal number of their tadpoles), were taken from a sediment-impacted Safe Harbor pond site in a canyon area burned by the Monument Fire. They will reside in temporary quarters until the pond, a source population for introduction of frogs to elsewhere, is healthy enough to welcome them back.

Mount Graham in the Pinaleno Mountains of Southeastern Arizona holds the distinction of the only spot anywhere with a population of endangered red squirrels—and only one road in and out of their turf. So when that species, of which only 214 are known to exist, was threatened with a possible wipe-out loss due to habitat destruction by fire, emergency measures were implemented.

Fish and Wildlife Service personnel, as part of their mission to “conserve, protect, and enhance animals and their habitats” raced up the mountain to trap two male and two female squirrels for a relocation vacation at the Phoenix Zoo. The collected squirrels, being cared for to guard against extinction in the event a wildfire decimates their wild population, could serve as a seed population for restoring the species in the wild.

With the official summer wildfire season ending soon, wildlife protection agencies are breathing sighs of relief. Contaminated streams are clear again and forests are rebounding. “From one perspective, wildfires can be beneficial,” says wildlife specialist Jim Heffelfinger. ”That forest of charred trees quickly becomes green again with new food and cover for the return of wildlife.”

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