THE PRAIRIE BURNS: Wildfires in northwest Oklahoma leave some wondering about the health of wildlife in the region
Sue Selman, who owns the historic Selman Ranch near Buffalo in Harper County, worries how the recent wildfires in Oklahoma may have devastated wildlife in the region.
She is most concerned about the plight of the lesser prairie chicken, a bird whose fight for survival once made it a candidate as a threatened or endangered species.
“My personal, uneducated opinion is this may be the death knell for prairie chickens,” Selman said.
Northwest Oklahoma boasts some of the finest hunting land in the country for deer, turkeys and quail. Now, more than 300,000 acres of that ground has been scorched in Beaver, Harper and Woodward counties.
Selman, like other ranchers in northwest Oklahoma, makes money from hunters. The communities in northwest Oklahoma make money as well from hunters who buy gas, groceries, supplies and lodging during the hunting season.
“There are a lot of ranchers that depend on hunting as a major source of income,” she said. “I think it is going to be overwhelming once they figure out the loss. It's not just the loss of the animals but the loss of their habitat and their food sources.”
State wildlife officials in Oklahoma acknowledge there also was a significant number of wild animals that perished in the wildfires, but they don't share such a bleak outlook. This is not the first time the prairie has burned.
“Unfortunately, there is a lot of economic loss in the cattle industry, but as far as wildlife is concerned, I think it will be beneficial,” said Alan Peoples, chief of the wildlife division for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, about the wildfires.
“I think if we can get some rain, it's going to be the greenest and lush they've seen it in a while (in northwest Oklahoma), which is good for wildlife.”
Peoples heard concerns similar to Selman's from northwest Oklahoma residents at a meeting Monday at the Harper County fairgrounds.
“It burned through a good portion of the lesser prairie chicken range, for sure,” Peoples said of the wildfires that blazed across Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. “Is it going to be the end of them? I don't think so.
“Historically, the prairies burned off at 5-year intervals and they were big fires, like what we saw. That's when the prairie chicken flourished. Bison used to follow the fires, and it wasn't just bison. All the animals benefited from fire.”
Prescribed or controlled burns are the best wildlife management tool used by the Wildlife Department, Peoples said.
The Wildlife Department, which offers technical assistance for free to landowners who are interested in improving wildlife habitat, often will burn areas of public land to eliminate dead grass and eastern Red Cedar trees. The trees rob moisture and nutrients from beneficial plants.
Fire increases soil productivity by releasing and recycling nutrients in plant litter and undergrowth. It prepares the soil for the germination of seeds as well as opens up the habitat for new growth and diversity. This, in turn, provides for a greater variety of food and shelter for wildlife.
“A lot of nutrients are tied up in dead vegetation, so when that dead vegetation burns, it's actually nature's way of fertilization,” Peoples said. “It returns those nutrients back to the soil and makes it available for growing plants.”
The two-day youth turkey hunting season opens Saturday and the month-long regular season opens April 6 in most of Oklahoma, including in the northwest. State wildlife officials say it would be wrong for hunters to assume that no gobblers could be found on the scorched ground.
“In our prescribed fires, I have actually seen turkeys out in the black while it's still smoldering,” Peoples said. “It kind of unveils the secrets of the forest floor, so to speak. Turkeys are attracted to a burn site.”
Scott Parry, northwest region chief for the Wildlife Department, agrees and thinks hunters might be surprised to find turkeys on burnt soil.
“I would fully expect there would be some decent turkey hunting in some of those burned areas," he said.
Some roosting trees, however, were no doubt destroyed, he said.
“The concern I have with turkeys other than the direct mortality from the fire would be roost trees,” Parry said. “I am not real sure how many of those good roosting areas we've lost."
The wildfires flirted with several of the public hunting areas in the region, but none of the wildlife management areas were burned.
Several northwest Oklahoma residents, worried if there would be anything to eat for wildlife in the scorched regions, asked Peoples on Monday if they should start putting out food. Nature will take care of it was his answer.
The chicks of quail, turkey and prairie chickens subsist solely on insects during the first six weeks of their lives, Peoples said.
“Lush, green vegetation attracts insects,” he said. “How do you provide that lush, green vegetation? Nature does it with fire and then rain.”
Such assurances, however, do not alleviate Selman's fears. Even if it does rain, she expects it will be a long time before the earth's rebirth, and that it may be too late for the prairie chickens anyway.
“If there are no prairie chickens left alive, it doesn't matter how many cedar trees burned,” she said. “There are no birds left to rejuvenate.''