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Endangered wildlife, habitat burned in Washington's wildfires

By Lynda V. Mapes, The Seattle Times on

Published in News & Features

SEATTLE - Entire wildlife areas have been destroyed and endangered populations of animals gravely depleted by wildfires burning in Eastern Washington.

Much of the area burned east of the mountains included shrub-steppe habitat. The assemblage of sage and other plants is critical to the survival of the pygmy rabbit, sage grouse and sharp-tailed grouse.

It is still the early days in understanding the extent of the damage from the fires and how it unfolded. But wildlife managers think the Pearl Hill fire may cause a population decline of anywhere from 30% to 70% in sage grouse, bringing the statewide population to dangerously low levels.

The Pearl Hill fire is still burning, so the damage could be worse than presently understood. But managers already know that half of the sage grouse leks, or breeding areas, in the heart of the state's endangered population in Douglas County have burned. Likely also lost is the struggling reintroduced population of sage grouse in Lincoln County.

The Pearl Hill fire started Sept. 7 near Bridgeport and burned about 224,000 acres. It was mostly contained as of Tuesday.

Some, and even many of the sage grouse, may have escaped the fire. But some birds are known to have been killed. Birds forced to move also are more vulnerable to predators, because they are in new and unfamiliar territory.

 

Managers are working to determine the impact to the sage grouse population - and how to support the survivors through the winter, said Hannah Anderson, manager of wildlife diversity for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).

For the tiny pygmy rabbit, weighing only a pound and standing not even a foot tall at maturity, the situation is grim.

One of three recovery areas for the rabbits, a federally listed endangered species, was entirely burned. Managers had learned from previous fires to disperse released rabbits to multiple areas to guard against total loss in a wildfire. But the impact to recovery is still significant.

Fire overtook breeding enclosures with a total of about 20 rabbits, as well as four release-and-acclimation pens with about 40 rabbits.

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