February 29, 2024

Hidden cameras see wildlife returning home after 2018 megafire

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During the summer of 2018, the Mendocino Complex Fire tore through UC’s Hopland Research and Extension Center (HREC), transforming the Northern California property’s grassy, ​​oak-dotted hillsides into a smoldering, ash-covered wasteland.

“It felt like something out of Lord of the Rings – like Mordor. It was hard to imagine there would be much left,” said Justin Brashares, a professor of environmental science, policy and management at the University of California, Berkeley.

But just months after the fire, animals like coyotes, gray foxes and black-tailed jackrabbits were seen returning to the area, visible with a grid of motion-sensor camera traps that Brashares’ lab has been operating since 2016. HREa multidisciplinary research and education facility located on the banks of the Russian River approximately 13 miles south of Ukiah.

“We were surprised that many species seem to be resistant [to the impacts of the fire],” said Kendall Calhoun, a graduate student at UC Berkeley and a member of Brashares’ lab.

Calhoun is the lead author of a new study that analyzed more than 500,000 camera grid images taken at the HREC in the years before and after the Mendocino Complex Fire to understand the fire’s impact on small and medium-sized mammals on the property.

The study, a seen today in the diary Ecosphere, one of the first studies to compare continuous wildlife observations made before and after a megafire. It is also one of a limited number of studies to focus on the impacts of megawatt fires on California oak woodlands. Oak woodland ecosystems comprise much of the state, yet are underrepresented in wildfire research compared to the coniferous forests of the Sierra Nevada.

Kendall Calhoun checks a motion-sensor camera trap located in the middle of a grassy field at the Hopland Research and Extension Center. This hillside is characteristic of California’s oak woodland savanna, with large shrubs and stands of oak trees. (Photo by Jackie Mara Beck)

“For most Californians, these oak woodlands and grassy savannahs are what we think of as our state’s signature biome or ecosystem,” Brashares said. “It’s the main ecosystem type for livestock grazing, and it’s also the main type of habitat used to grow grapes for wine. It’s a vital type of ecosystem, and it deserves to be managed well.”

Of the eight animal species included in the study, six were found to be “resistant” to the effects of the fire, using the area in the same ways and with approximately the same frequency as before the fire. These species included coyote, black tailed rabbit, gray fox, raccoon, striped srunk and bobcat. However, the western green squirrel and black-tailed deer appeared to be more vulnerable to the effects of the fire.

Brashares and Calhoun believe many of the species were able to remain in the area because of small patches of tree cover spared by the fire. Photos from the camera traps show many animals taking refuge in these patches, using them to find food and resources and recover more heavily burned areas. Some animals were even observed using these locations more often after the fire than before.

These results highlight the importance of using techniques such as grazing and prescribed burning to reduce the severity of wildfires when they occur. These lower intensity fires are more likely to leave the canopy intact and create the kinds of forest heterogeneity that fire ecosystems can benefit from.

“Even this extremely hot and destructive fire managed to leave behind these small patches of unburned areas, and we were surprised how quickly many species were able to move into those patches of habitat and spread back into the burned areas as they succeeded,” Brashares said. “This finding is very valuable for forest management because we can do things with the landscape that will increase the chance that it will leave some of these fragments when a fire comes through.”

A photograph shows a hillside where all plant life has been reduced to ash.

The Mendocino Complex Fire burned extremely hot, reducing parts of the Hopland Research and Extension Center to an ash-covered “moonscape.” (Photo by Phoebe Parker-Shames)

Inferno threatens

Calhoun was halfway around the world visiting New Zealand when he received a text message from study co-author Kaitlyn Gaynor informing him that the HREC was on fire.

“I think my text right back was, ‘Is everybody okay?'” Calhoun said.

For two years, Calhoun has been helping to maintain the 36 camera traps spread across the property established in collaboration with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to test a new way to monitor wildlife populations across the state.

Calhoun first entered the Brashares lab hoping to study megafire impacts on a variety of wildlife, but the wildfire’s unpredictability made finding a study site difficult. The Mendocino Complex Fire – while terrifying and devastating – gave him a rare opportunity.

“From what I heard, it was really scary because the fire was approaching the property because there are people living there, so there was a big rush to evacuate. The fire ended up burning more than half of the area,” Calhoun said. “I was a bit distant when I found out, but I was interested in getting down to speed and making sure we got all the details we needed when I got back.”

Calhoun and the team first returned to the site about two months after the fire, when trees were still smoldering and the HREC resembled a “moonscape.” The team’s first task was to check the cameras, 13 of which had been partially melted by the fire. As well as replacing broken camera parts, they also checked to make sure the camera traps were set in the same position and orientation as they were before the fire, to ensure their data was still as consistent and it is possible.

Article: Kendall Calhoun stands in a grassy clearing between stands of oak trees.  A backpack sits on the ground near his feet, and he is ringing through a large binder

Kendall Calhoun checks a motion sensor camera trap at Hopland. The team visits each of the 36 cameras in the wildlife detection grid once every three months to download new photos, replace broken parts, and remove grass and other debris that may obstruct the view of the animals. cleaning. (Photo by Marissa Ortega-Welch)

Every three months, the team visits all 36 cameras on site, downloading the photos, making sure everything is working properly and removing any grass or debris that obstructs the view. They then spend countless hours reviewing each shot to fix the photos that contain animals, then identify the animals and log the data.

“A lot of the data we collect is just grass blowing in the wind,” Calhoun said.

In addition to small and medium-sized mammals, the cameras capture photos of large animals, such as black bears and mountain lions. Because these apex predators have enormous home ranges — often exceeding the HREC’s 5,300 acres — accurate information about their distributions cannot be obtained from the study area.

Calhoun said anecdotally, these animals were seen much less frequently after the fire, suggesting they were slower to return to the area after the fire.

After his Ph.D. this summer, Calhoun plans to continue his work as a 2023 Smith Fellow, studying how widespread changes in fire regimes are affecting wildlife species across California. As part of the work, he hopes to obtain broader scale data on apex predators to better understand what happens to these animals when large fires destroy their home ranges.

“For my next project, I’m really interested in looking at the wide-scale effects of fire on those really wide-ranging species, like mountain lions and bears, and then also how wildfires might affect their relationships with people,” Calhoun said. “The conflict between bears and people, especially in Lake Tahoe, is very much in the news right now, and I think climate change or fire could be driving some of those interactions.”

Additional study authors include Benjamin R. Goldstein, Kaitlyn Gaynor, Alex McInturff and Leonel Solorio of UC Berkeley. This work was supported in part by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW Grant # P1680002) and the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship program.

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