When Sonny Tapia first went into the forest after the Wallow Fire, the devastation brought tears to his eyes. The lifelong resident of eastern Arizona feels as comfortable in the surrounding wilderness as he does in his living room. “Seeing the places I grew up camping as a kid, the beauty was just gone,” he said.
But Tapia is quick to look for the silver lining, predicting a surge in trophy deer and elk in the region. “One thing positive to come out of it is going to be the excellent habitat. The fires kill the undergrowth and rejuvenate the soil,” which can lead to healthy grasses up to 12 inches high, he explained. As a professional hunting guide and owner of Dream Mountain Outfitters, LLC, Tapia says the changes should be good for hunters. “Within five years, you’re going to see the mule deer herd go through the roof and some phenomenal sized bucks to boot.”
Catastrophic wildfires like this year’s Wallow and the Rodeo-Chediski Fire nine years ago bring many changes, but the impact on wildlife may be less than what some people expect. The Arizona Game and Fish Department’s Jim Paxon tells Flagstaff Business News the number of hunting permits remained mostly unchanged this year. “The Commission had already established deer, elk, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, and bear seasons prior to the Wallow Fire, but made no amendments to these seasons because the department’s biological data indicated very limited direct mortality to these populations due to the fire,” said Paxon. His department will closely scrutinize information following the fall hunts to determine if fewer permits should be issued next year.
Merriam’s Turkeys were the hardest hit species on the mountain and permit numbers were changed to reflect that. In July, the Game and Fish Commission reduced the 1,575 turkey permits to just 500 in the burn areas, a change expected to carry over to next year as well.
Paxon added that additional habitat for turkeys becomes available rapidly with oak sprouts, grass and more nesting options. “Generally, turkey numbers rebound quickly as the change in available habitat is very positive.” In the fire’s aftermath, Game and Fish biologists and wildlife managers will continue to monitor the species’ health and habitat.
Managing and protecting Arizona’s wildlife populations is important on many levels. There are more than 50 million acres of public lands in the state, home to 800 animal species.
Tom Britt retired as regional director of the Arizona Game and Fish Department, after 30 years in wildlife conservation. “Wildfire is akin to cleaning your carpet with a rototiller,” he said. “It will work, but it is terrible.” Britt agrees many more nutrients are released following a powerful wildfire, but he would rather see more forest management and controlled burns. Reminiscing on the Radio Fire, which burned most of Flagstaff’s Mount Elden in 1977, Britt says wildfire brings long-term changes to the landscape. “Will the ponderosa pine come back? They probably will, but it will be a millennium until they return again.” FBN