Post-Fire Care and Cautions for Wildlife

The first thing this reporter did when we returned home after the Woolsey Fire evacuation
was lifted was to refill the birdbath in the garden. Suddenly, the air was filled with robins.
They jostled for a place at the basin of water, caroling and chirping like a scene from a
medieval nativity carol. Many houses were lost in our neighborhood, and much habitat
blackened. It was heartening to see not only the migrating robins but the neighborhood
birds, alive and well in the garden. Photo by Suzanne Guldimann

Topanga was spared from wildfire damage during the Woolsey Fire, but the National Park Service (NPS) estimates that more than 50 percent of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA) burned, including nearly 90 percent of federally-owned open space. That leaves Topanga and Will Rogers State Parks as the largest remaining section of the National Recreation Area not damaged by the fire.

Because of this, Canyon residents may find they are playing host to displaced wildlife in the months following the disaster, as birds and animals search for food and shelter. Conflicting advice on how to help wildlife after the fire is all over the internet. The NPS endorses a hands-off policy, advising against putting out food or water for displaced animals.

One exception to that recommendation may be water for birds. Many species of birds, especially strong fliers, have a chance of escaping a wildfire, even one as vast as the Woolsey Fire, and successfully migrating to unburned areas in search of new habitat. All bird baths should be placed in a safe location, above ground level, in an area that is secure from domestic cats and other predators. The basin should not be too deep and it is critically important that the water is kept clean.

Some of the larger land animals also have a high success rate of survival. The NPS has confirmed that 11 of the mountain lions it monitors with radio collars have survived the fire. P-22, the Griffith Park mountain lion, survived a separate wildfire threat. Researchers have indicated that they are hopeful that the thirteenth big cat in the study program has also survived, although they have still not picked up the signal from its collar. Unfortunately for the cats, much of their range has been affected by the fire.

The NPS also confirmed that three of the study program’s four bobcats have survived. Those four bobcats represent only a small percentage of the total number of the cats estimated to live in the fire zone. Some of these wild cats may be in search of shelter in surrounding areas. Coyotes also have a high survival rate, and may be migrating out of the area.

Topanga activist Carrie Carrier recent shared her concerns that Topanga may be playing host to more native predators than usual in the aftermath of the fire.  

“Please be prepared for more wildlife sightings and pet-predator encounters,” she wrote in an open email. “The likelihood of encounters between domestic pets (including livestock) and wild predators may intensify during this time of extreme ecological disturbance.”

Carrier recommends taking extra precautions to secure pets and livestock from mountain lions, coyotes, and bobcats.

“Our wildlife population is under major stress right now,” she wrote. “Taking extra steps in the coming days/weeks/months to protect your pets and livestock will help ward off preventable (and potentially fatal) attacks on your beloved animals while also keeping our mountain lion population safe from unnecessary and counterproductive depredation permits.”

Carrier also shared some thoughts from Topanga Town Council advisor John Waller.

“I am concerned about how our local mountain lions have come through the fires and what needs to be done to facilitate the survival of all that do survive the fires,” Waller wrote.

“Unfortunately, the territory burned by the Woolsey wildfire seems to largely coincide with the heart of the areas where our local cougars frequent, including the areas on either side of the proposed Liberty Canyon wildlife crossing. With those areas burned, our cougars will undoubtedly spend more time foraging in more populated areas and will interact more frequently with the people and their pets and hobby animals in those areas.”

Topanga residents with pet llamas, alpacas, goats, sheep, miniature horses, and other potentially vulnerable livestock, can find practical advice on how to predator-proof their animals at mountainlion.org.

Dogs, cats and other smaller animals should be kept indoors, and only allowed out under supervision. Creating a securely fenced play area for small pets and young children is another practical option.

Research from earlier fires, including wildlife cameras placed in the Springs Fire burn area in 2013, reveal the adaptability of wildlife, with species like deer and coyotes reappearing as soon as the fire has passed through. There are already photos of deer in the Woolsey burn area, and the recent rain is expected to help speed the growth of winter grasses and annuals for them to feed on, but the damage this time is so extensive that recovery is expected to take years.

Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (DPH) is warning that a less-welcome class of animal may be moving into the neighborhood: rodents in search of shelter.

Rodents aren’t the only household refugees that may turn up: mice, raccoons, skunks, bats, squirrels, and even snakes may be looking for a safe place to winter.

The DPH recommends keeping garbage in rodent-proof containers that are tightly covered to avoid attracting animals; making sure pet or people food is not left outside; and checking one’s house and buildings for areas where rats and wild animals can sleep, hide, or find food, and sealing those areas if possible. It’s a good idea to wear gloves and a mask when cleaning any area with evidence of rodent activity.

Call the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health for more information at (888) 700-9995.

Abundant wildlife, including mountain lions, is one of the things that makes the Santa Monica Mountains special and remarkable, and the Topanga community has always been a good neighbor to its creatures. Activists are calling on all Santa Monica Mountains residents to help ensure that the surviving wildlife has an opportunity to recover and thrive again, just like their human neighbors. To learn about habitat restoration and the mountain lion and bobcat monitoring project, or to donate to help support wildfire recovery,  visit www.samofund.org

The California Wildlife Center (CWC) was forced to evacuate with all of their patients during the fire, but they are in the process of moving back to their facility and have continued to treat injured wildlife throughout the disaster. Report injured wildlife by calling (310) 458-9453, or learn more at www.cwc.org.

According to Kim Lamorie, president of the Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation (LVHF), donations to help restore the SMMNRA can be made directly to the National Park Service.

“We are focused on wildlife and habitat recovery,” Lamorie wrote. “If you want to help make a difference now in specifically rescuing, saving, and helping wildlife and/or re-establishing their habitat—you can make a direct donation to the National Park Service , to the very people who have been here for 40 years doing just that, and who are in charge of recovery efforts. If anyone can succeed in this effort, they can. One hundred percent of donations go directly to saving wildlife and/or re-establishing their habitat.

To donate: Make checks payable to “NPS” and write in its memo, “For Woolsey Fire—Wildlife Recovery and/or Habitat Restoration.” Mail to: David Szymanski, Superintendent, The National Park Service, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, 401 West Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks, CA 91360.

 

Suzanne Guldimann

Suzanne Guldimann is a writer, artist, and musician who lives in Malibu and loves the Santa Monica Mountains. She’s covered environment, arts, science, history and crime for the local media for more than a decade and is the author of nine books of music for the Celtic harp. She can be reached at s.guldimann@messengermountainnews.com

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