Chattanooga Times Free Press
Rare species threatened by burn scars and winter storms
LOS ANGELES — Up until a few weeks ago, the West Fork of the San Gabriel River was one of the most abundant wildlife habitats in Los Angeles County, a secluded and rugged area defined by its steep peaks, lush canyons and mixture of rare and endangered species.
Recently however, a team of federal biologists and forest rangers was aghast when it visited the stream following the Bobcat fire, which has burned more than 115,000 acres in the heart of the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument.
Terrain that once resembled a High Sierra granite gorge now looked like ground zero after a nuclear explosion, and the usually clean mountain air was sharp with the stench of smoke.
Particularly unsettling were the bare and ashen slopes that were now primed to dissolve under pounding winter storms. A heavy mudslide, experts said, could reverse decades of conservation efforts by inundating the last outposts for such federally protected species as the Santa Ana sucker fish and Southern California mountain yellow-legged frog.
“There’s nothing left,” muttered U.S. Geological Survey biologist Adam Backlin as he surveyed the barren, ugly mountains overlooking Cogswell Dam, which controls the flow in an 8- mile stretch of the stream that provides some of the best fly-fishing in Southern California and helps recharge the metropolitan aquifer in the flatlands below.
“Armageddon,” said Leslie Welch, district wildlife biologist at the Angeles National Forest.
The Bobcat fire was 92% contained Tuesday, Forest Service officials said.
The exact toll on wildlife along the West Fork and throughout much of the range will not be known until the Forest Service’s emergency response teams determine the extent of the damage in severely burned areas, which, for safety reasons, could remain closed for months to come, federal forest officials said.
Even without that information, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service are now scrambling to devise post- fire rescue operations to ensure the survival of protected species in the event canyon bottoms are buried in a slurry of rocks, uprooted trees and sediment this winter.
Their options include dispatching teams of state and federal biologists armed with electroshock wands and nets to scoop up as many fish and frogs as possible, then release them into suitable streams elsewhere.