Chattanooga Times Free Press

Rare species threat­ened by burn scars and win­ter storms

- BY LOUIS SAHAGÚN

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.

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