Wildlife losing homes, habitat to wildfires

Wildlife losing homes, habitat to wildfires

Wildlife relies on instinct, intuition and centuries of DNA passed through their ancestors to know how to cope with wildfire and the aftermath.

But when the fires happen more frequently, burn hotter and more habitat is lost, their resiliency may not be what it was in years gone by.

“It is impossible to ignore the fact the fire regimen is intensifying and changing. There are several species that will be at risk if these mega-fires continue to happen year after year in the Sierra Nevada,” Mark Enders, wildlife diversity biologist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife, said.

In the Tahoe area, Enders singled out spotted owls and martens, the latter a weasel-like mammal, that will have a harder time with habitat loss, especially if the fires continue at this pace.

Gold Country Wildlife Rescue in Auburn is caring for multiple bears hurt in wildfires in 2021. (Image: Chelsea Stein Enberg)

2020 was the worst fire season in California’s history with more than 4.1 million acres charred. In 2021, there were 8,832 wildfires in the state that burned nearly 2.6 million acres.

The Lake Tahoe area in 2021 was impacted by the Tamarack and Caldor fires.

“We are talking about 300 vertebrate species that might use a given forest. It is going to be a little different for each species that uses it,” Enders said. “The species that are most at-risk are the species that are less common. The California spotted owl makes use of mature forest in the Sierra Nevada. Generally, it’s the only habitat you will find them.”

Silver haired bats and flying squirrels also live in mature forests, like what burned in the Caldor Fire. The ability to fly, though, ups the chances of survival.

Some animals  withstood the flames by burrowing underground.

Larger animals in the basin like bears, deer and bobcats are likely to have fled and could return. While the Caldor Fire burned more than 221,000 acres, only 9,885 acres were in the basin. Even so, it’s not like these animals know such boundaries.

What remains to be seen because of the Tahoe area fires is how many bear cubs will be born this winter. If the hyperphagia phase was interrupted, it may impact births. This phase is when bears go into overdrive to eat as much as they can before retiring to a den for the winter.

The Gondola Fire on the South Shore was in 2002; this is the scar in 2021. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

What will never be known is how many animals actually die in any given fire.

It often isn’t until the fire is less intense or has been contained that the affected animals reveal themselves to the people who have returned after an evacuation. What has changed, though, is the Wildlife Disaster Network that was created in fall 2020 as a partnership between UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“It is a way to pool the limited and small wildlife veterinary services around the state to maximize the benefits for injured, burned wildlife,” explained Peter Tira with CDFW.

Firefighters who encounter wildlife with medical needs can call an 800 number so help can be administered faster.

When the more than 22,000 South Lake Tahoe residents were ordered to evacuate, not all the animals got the message. According to the South Lake Tahoe Police Department, there were 16 calls related to bears from Aug. 30 to Sept. 6. Not all were break-ins.

El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office reported 57 bear calls in the Tahoe basin from Aug. 26-Oct. 12.

Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care in South Lake Tahoe also had to evacuate because of the Caldor Fire. It is one of more than 80 wildlife rehabilitation centers certified by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The nonprofit is caring for three burned porcupines from the Christmas Valley area, where the Caldor flames first reached the basin.

“Because of the loss of habitat we are getting a lot of starving animals. Red-tail hawks mainly, and other raptors migrating through or from here who are not getting their food source,” explained Denise Upton, animal care director for LTWC.

“Some of our bears released this spring were about 70 miles from here at Ebbetts Pass. They got pushed out (from the fires) and we are getting calls from Washoe Valley.” Ear tags identify the bears.

However, it’s not just the fires that are displacing wildlife. Wildfire prevention is doing the same thing.

“Last year we received 3,700-plus animals. This year we will see well more than 4,700 animals. I attribute it to tree clearing—PG&E and homeowners are clearing year-round,” Sallysue Stein, director of Gold Country Wildlife Rescue in Auburn, said. “We were buried in baby season. Every tree can have song birds, foxes, raccoons, barn owls and all those cavity dwellers. I still think we are only seeing a fraction of those babies.”

Baby season starts in March and can last into September.

While fire can clearly be devastating for people, wildlife and flora, it is not always a bad thing. Clearing out the underbrush can produce a healthier forest and better habitat for those who call it home. It’s crown fires—when the flames are in treetops—that are most severe and cause the most loss of habitat.

Some animals actually thrive in a charred landscape.

“The black-backed woodpecker was almost listed as an endangered species a few years ago,” Enders with NDOW said. “That is a species that is known to seek out these burn areas because of the insects that are there after a fire. That is a species that will benefit in the Caldor burn area.”

He has spent quite a bit of time studying life after the 2002 Gondola Fire that burned more than 670 acres after someone who was never identified threw a cigarette out of one of Heavenly Mountain Resort’s gondola cars.

While nearly 20 years later the scar is still pronounced because the trees have not come back, there are numerous shrubs and large swaths of lupine that have sprouted. The flora gives nourishment to bumblebees and other insects that did not exist in these numbers pre-fire, according to Enders.

He explained how these pollinators create food sources for animals higher up the food chain. They pollinate fruit sources for bears to feast off of—thus proving wildlife and the land can learn to adapt post-fire—at least for now.

A version of this story first appeared in Tahoe In Depth.

Stormy weather adds moodiness to walk along Sac River

Stormy weather adds moodiness to walk along Sac River

The sun is unable to completely penetrate the storm clouds over the Sacramento River. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

The sun tried to punch through, only to be thwarted by the ominous black clouds. The river looked so uninviting, rushing furiously downstream, its edges swelling to accommodate the recent rains.

Mother Nature’s vast moodiness was on display the last Sunday of December in the Rio Vista Unit of the Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge.

Bundled up in warm weather gear and rain jackets, the mood of the 13 hikers was giddy. It was time to stretch our legs after several days of rain. Fortunately, the rain clouds were only threatening for this 6-mile excursion and never opened up to soak us.

I didn’t realize how much of a headwind there was until heading back to the vehicles with a tailwind that seemed to make breathing, talking and walking so much easier.

Much of the route was along the Sacramento River on a trail wide enough to walk at least two abreast. It actually looked like an old road. On this dreary day the grass growing along the trail, and in the middle of what would be tire ruts on either side was the only vibrant color.

This is just one of 30 units in the refuge. In all it stretches 80 miles from Red Bluff to Colusa. Twenty-four of the units are at least partially open to the public without a fee. Some are accessible only via boat or other water transport.

Lush green grass adds color to a dreary day. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

“The refuge consists of 10,819 acres primarily of wetlands, with some grasslands and riparian habitats,” according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Sacramento River Refuge was established in 1937 “to provide refuge and breeding habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife, provide habitat and manage for endangered, threatened, or sensitive species, and alleviate crop depredation.”

The USFWS website also says, “The refuge supports over 250 species of birds. Most notable are the huge wintering concentrations (November-January) of 500,000 to 750,000 ducks and 200,000 geese. Raptor numbers swell as the waterfowl numbers increase, including bald eagles and peregrine falcons. Waterfowl viewing is good between October and March. In addition, shorebird numbers peak in the spring and fall, while some waterfowl and numerous migratory songbird species nest here during the summer. Many birds and mammals provide year-round viewing.”

In additions to fish and birds, those who recreate in this area could encounter ticks, mosquitoes, wasps, yellow jackets, bees, poison oak, stinging nettle, poison hemlock, rattle snakes, feral pigs, and mountain lions. We didn’t encounter any of the above. In fact, the weather even kept the birds from flitting about much.

To get there from Chico, we took Highway 99 north nearly 20 miles before turning left on South Avenue (just past the CalFire station on the right), and another left into the parking area. If you see the river, you went too far.

100+ year old seed orchard continues to be of value

100+ year old seed orchard continues to be of value

The seed orchard in Chico is run by the U.S. Forest Service. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Rows of trees growing in a line like they are a crop, a paved path meandering along a creek with a tree canopy providing an abundance of shade, a large greenhouse with a few busted glass panes.

This is the Chico Seed Orchard.

Bamboo-like stalks grow tall in the seed orchard. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

According to the U.S. Forest Service’s website, the primary functions of the seed orchard are to:

  • Provide high-quality, source-identified seed.
  • Enhance reforestation success in current and future planting environments.
  • Promote gene conservation in the Pacific Southwest Region.
  • Focus on ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir seed production.

The website says seed produced at the orchard benefits:

  • Ecological restoration
  • Wildfire recovery
  • Native American cultural values
  • Forest health, including research and disease resistance.

A 1-mile paved trail weaves through the site. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Started in 1904 as a plant introduction program by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, today the Chico Seed Orchard is part of the Mendocino National Forest. This seems a bit odd since it is like an island unto itself with no other part of the national forest surrounding it.

The 209-acre orchard was established on land donated by the Bidwells. The goal was to amass a slew of trees and shrubs from around the world in order to study them for them for medicinal value, fruit, and landscaping.

A free pamphlet at the start of the 1-mile paved nature trail lists 71 plants coming from Russia, China, Japan, Korea, California, Ireland, Africa, South America, Guatemala, Northern Europe and the Mediterranean. The flora includes Russian hackberry, lacebark pine, ornamental pear, giant reed, filbert of hazelnut, and kiwi.

Diamond Peak a jewel of a snowshoe in Lassen Park

Diamond Peak a jewel of a snowshoe in Lassen Park


Snowshoers on their way to Diamond Peak in Lassen Park on Jan. 1. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Rising like a beacon, the diamond was all a glitter in the unbridled sunshine on this first day of 2022.

While that might be a bit of an exaggeration, it is not hyperbole to say this snowshoe in Lassen Volcanic National Park was incredibly spectacular.

Snow conditions were perfect—firm because of all of our tracks, soft when breaking trail, glistening where it was untouched.

The rock is Diamond Peak. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

The weather ideal—bright sun, with temps in the 30s, and no wind.

The companionship superb—Sue joined me and 18 other Chico Oroville Outdoor Adventurers.

The scenery—off the charts beautiful, with Brokeoff Mountain (9,235 feet) a constant feature along the route, and Lassen Peak (10,457 feet) awash in white. However, it was sad in some respects to see all the trees that burned in last summer’s Dixie Fire. The PG&E-caused blaze charred more than half of the national park. Still, the park was magnificent.

The five-mile round trip trek to the top of Diamond Peak was breathtaking in more ways than one. I’m getting a little soft living at sea level, so the 1,122 feet of elevation gain was noticeable, as was reaching 7,862 feet. (The park map says Diamond Peak is 7,968. The tip top is not accessible without rock climbing gear.)

The beauty of Lassen Park is evident all along the trail. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

With incredible scenery in each direction, no one questioned whether the pause was to take in the views or actually take in more oxygen.

The lodge where we started is at 6,707 feet. It was a bit congested here as there is a sledding hill nearby.

It wasn’t until we hit Sulphur Works that I realized we were snowshoeing on a road. The steam from the fumaroles melted enough of the white stuff to reveal asphalt. The juxtaposition of naturally boiling water in this winter wonderland was just another reminder of the power of Mother Nature.

This road through Lassen is actually Highway 89. It’s closed most winters, but is definitely a route worth taking when the snow clears.

Evidence of the 2021 Dixie Fire is hard to miss. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

It was a gradual climb until we took a hard left off the road and into more rugged terrain. While the initial ascent was slow because, well, I am a flatlander, the views of Brokeoff Mountain meant the camera kept coming out of my pocket.

There is no sign saying turn here for Diamond Peak. Someone in the group said this is not a summer destination, that there isn’t a real trail up there. I’ll have to see what it looks like in six months when the snow melts, or longer depending on if the snow keeps coming.

The rest of the way was definitely steeper, but nothing outrageous. Nonetheless, I was happy to have poles going up and down.

Diamond Peak is a large rock, with an overhang that is ideal to sit under while having lunch. Just be wary of falling snow.

In winter the park entrance fee is $10.

Sutter Buttes erupt from middle of Central Valley

Sutter Buttes erupt from middle of Central Valley

Sutter Buttes look moody with storm clouds circling. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

While the Sutter Buttes are not that tall, they are hard to miss as they seem to be sprouting from the middle of ag land.

Rising to a height of just more than 2,000 feet, these volcanic domes are the highest points in Sutter County. With the buttes being 10 miles long and so much of the land around the area being flat, they can be seen from miles away in all directions.

Some have called this the world’s smallest mountain range.

From afar Sutter Buttes looks more imposing. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Even though part of the land is a state park, it’s not accessible by the public on a regular basis. This is because private land surrounds what is public and landowners won’t allow an easement for access.

The private land owners decades ago allowed unlimited access, but then people started to disrespect the environment by leaving graffiti on rocks, not shutting the gates that kept animals in, and destroying the property in other ways.

The Sutter Buttes Regional Land Trust at various times offers guided hikes for a fee. Unless you know a property owner, the guided hikes are the main way to get onto the land.

Mom has been on one of these guided hike and says it’s worth doing. Various routes are available, some more difficult than others.

Sutter Buttes look different from the various angles along the drive. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

On most days, though, the only way to see the buttes up close is to take a driving tour or ride a bike. Mom and I opted for the car version.

We started on the edge of Yuba City on country roads that were best suited for the Jeep, though no four-wheel drive was needed and passenger cars would be fine. It’s just that the road isn’t always smooth. It’s about a 45-mile drive.

The one marker we saw touted how Maj. Gen. John Fremont camped in the area in spring 1848: “While on a march from Klamath Lake to Sonoma when he represented the United States government during the Bear Flag Uprising which resulted in the acquisition of California from Mexico.”

Being close to the formations they seemed less imposing, at least from the comfort of the Jeep. Still, it was interesting to view them from all sides as we drove in a clockwise motion around them. As the clouds filtered in and out it added to the natural beauty.

S. Lake Tahoe snowboarder Hight talks of failures, successes

S. Lake Tahoe snowboarder Hight talks of failures, successes

Elena Hight conquers the big mountains of Alaska.

When someone has reached the pinnacle of their sport it can be hard to fathom how they might have self-confidence. But success is often riddled with doubt, second guessing and a fair amount of adversity.

South Lake Tahoe’s Elena Hight is a two-time Olympian, with seven X Games medals and a U.S. Championship in snowboarding. Her talk on Dec. 16 titled “Breaking through Comfort Zones: Pipes, Powder and Post Holes” shed light on the pressure she felt, her successes and failures, and how she rediscovered her love of snowboarding. This was part of Tahoe City’s Aplenglow Sports’ 16th annual winter speaker series.

Hight retired from competitive snowboarding three years ago to pursue big mountain snowboarding.

Surfing was her first board sport since she was born in Kauai. At age 6 her family moved to South Lake Tahoe, and snowboarding became her sport of choice. Kirkwood was her dad’s favorite resort, so that’s where they often went. Going through the gullies reminded him of riding waves.

By age 7 Hight was competing in snowboarding competitions.

“To be honest I was probably one of the most competitive children you ever met. I think I hated to lose more than I liked winning,” the 32-year-old said.

She was 16 when she made her Olympic debut at the 2006 Games. She finished sixth in halfpipe as the youngest member of the U.S. team.

“My competitive career took off after that. I landed on top of a lot of podiums,” Hight said.

Helena Hight of South Lake Tahoe talks Dec. 16 about life as a snowboarder.

She placed 10th at the 2010 Games in the halfpipe.

“Gretchen Bleiler and Hannah Teter were who I traveled with a lot. The people that you are with really makes the experience. I found a lot of comfort in this lifestyle living out of a packed bag, going to these events, pushing myself, partying and doing it all again,” Hight said.

“It sounds really exciting and fun, and it was for a long time. Somehow I got bored. I found myself in a rut.”

In 2012 she tried to find inspiration by perfecting a trick that had never been done before—by a woman or man—the double backside alley-oop rodeo. She landed it at the X Games the following year—the first to do so in competition.

“It made me super proud. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done in a halfpipe,” Hight said. “I had never gone upside down twice before. There is a lot that can go wrong.

“This was really a turning point in my career. Not because of the success, but because of stepping outside what I was comfortable with and pushing my limits.”

She was accustomed to being a trend setter. At 13 she was the first person to land a 900 in competition.

The problem, though, was that she became so fixated on the double backside that she didn’t qualify for the next Olympics in 2014.

In some ways this was life changing as she was invited to go ride Alaska.

“I almost said no because I was too afraid to fail. I had not been in big mountains. I was afraid of failing in front of people I looked up to so much,” Hight said.

While her fears were real, they were completely unfounded. She left there a changed woman. She describes it as having tunnel vision about Olympic and other competition in the halfpipe, thinking anything else would be a distraction.

“I soon realized this was the biggest inspiration I could have gotten for my snowboarding and my competitive career,” she said. “I definitely left Alaska in love with the big mountains. I also found a new spark for snowboarding. I had been so focused on the outcome of contests that I had forgotten I love the sport.”

Being reinvigorated landed her on multiple podiums the next season, including at the X Games. She was also a favorite to land a spot on the 2018 U.S. Olympic team.

“I fell on my face,” she said matter-of-factly. It had never crossed her mind she would not make the team.

“I think you learn lot more from failures than success. This failure taught me I was trying to run away from failure more than chasing success. It was a hard lesson to learn, but I learned it.”

Heartbreak as well as opportunity followed the Olympic trials. A few months after not making the team she got a call from big mountain snowboarder Jeremy Jones who invited her a little trip across the Sierra. She ended up starring in some of his film projects.

The experience with Jones led her to realize it was time to give up the halfpipe and pursue the backcountry. Some of her sponsors stayed, others severed ties.

“During this transition the biggest thing I learned is I found joy in learning just as much as a I did in succeeding,” Hight said. “I have failed more than I have succeeded. It makes the successes that much sweeter. Ultimately we find new comfort zones.”

Trek in Upper Bidwell Park a loop through constant beauty

Trek in Upper Bidwell Park a loop through constant beauty

Fog adds an unexpected beauty to Upper Bidwell Park. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Ascending from the foggy parking lot, it didn’t take long before we were above the grayness. Remarkably, though, it was that layer of fog that created some of the most stunning scenery.

While thick in the canyon within Upper Bidwell Park in Chico, the fog became wispier at the sun burned through that watery mist. The filtered sunlight, the backlit oak trees—it all added to the delightful mid-November hike.

The rocky North Rim Trail is wide enough for two people. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

In some places it was like a moonscape with the basalt rock scattered about the landscape. Only the rocks were strewn about on fresh green grass from the early November rains instead of barren ground.

The route we took under the guidance of a Chico Orville Outdoor Adventurers leader is not one I would have done on my own. This is because to me it looked like the North Rim Trail ended and we were going to have to retrace our steps.

Not so.

Big Chico Creek spills forth along the Yahi Trail. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Over the edge we went. Yes, there really was a trail there that was not well traversed. All the better to feel like we were exploring a bit.

Before we got to that point we had some fantastic views of the park, into the lush city-owned Sycamore Canyon, and way beyond to the snow covered Trinity Alps.

Much of the North Rim Trail is wide enough to walk two abreast. Remnants of last summer’s fire are still visible.

Along the circuitous route we saw buckeye, live oak, pines, and wispy pipestem clematis.

A single-track trail meanders through oak trees. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

We did bushwhack a bit between North Rim and B trails, but not much. Then we hooked up with Middle Trail, before finishing the trek back to the Horseshoe Lake parking area via Yahi Trail, which parallels Big Chico Creek.

It was a glorious day to be hiking in our “back yard” with some fall color still apparent and the winter greening just beginning.

By the end of the day we had logged 8.51 miles, with an elevation gain of 1,156 feet. Our lowest point was 304 feet and highest was 1,350 feet.

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