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Wildfires threaten protected habitats, Wolves, owls among the endangered

Herald and News 6/24/11

PHOENIX (AP) ó The largest wildfire in Arizona history left a charred landscape of blackened forest, burned-out vehicle hulks and charred fireplaces as it destroyed more than 30 homes. It also inflicted a serious toll on an ecosystem thatís home to numerous endangered species.

The flames spared three packs of endangered Mexican gray wolves but likely killed at least some threatened Mexican spotted owls as it roared through more than a half-million acres of a pristine forest on the New Mexico border.

Though some spots were untouched or had only undergrowth burn, the effect of the human-caused Wallow fire will last for decades because it burned so hot in many areas that it completely denuded the landscape, forest specialists said.

ďThe natural fires are good for a healthy forest, but these fires ó where the debris has been allowed to build up and it just hasnít been addressed ó they come out very hot and just scorch everything. As soon as the monsoon shows up, thereís a potential for a lot of soil to move,Ē said Tom Buckley, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesman.

The Wallow fire was 67 percent contained by Thursday night but still slowly growing on the south and southeast flanks.

Two other major fires are burning in the state. The 44-square-mile Monument fire near Sierra Vista, Ariz., has destroyed 57 homes. The 348-squaremile Horseshoe Two fire atop southeastern the Chiricahua mountains has destroyed nine homes in the world-renowned bird watching area.

The three wolf packs in the Apache-Sitgreaves all had pups and were in or near their dens when the fire that broke out on May 29 roared through, said Jim Paxon, a spokesman for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Firefighters on the ground have seen two of the packs moving around with their pups. Radio collars on the three adults in the third pack show they are alive, but the status of their pups remains unknown because they are in an area still too hot for ground crews to enter.

The spotted owls are another matter.

Crown fires in overgrown forests have become the greatest cause of unusual losses for the birds, and 73 protected nesting areas were burned in the fire, said Beth Humphrey, Apache-Sitgreaves biologist. There are 145 protested nest sites in the entire 2.1 million acre forest.

The burned forest supports more than a dozen other endangered or threatened species, including snails, frogs and fish. Dozens of other species live in the forest that arenít rare, including bear, deer, antelope and a herd of elk that, at about 6,000, is among the stateís biggest.

AP file photo


Unlike some major wildfires that inflict a serious human toll, perhaps the biggest impact from the largest wildfire in Arizona history will fall squarely on an ecosystem thatís home to numerous endangered species, including the Mexican gray wolf.


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