Wildlife in the Panhandle expected to bounce back after the Smokehouse Creek Fire

Experts advise people against feeding animals that appear hungry during wildfire recovery.

By Sarah AschMarch 18, 2024 1:39 pm,

The Smokehouse Creek Fire, the largest wildfire in Texas history, is finally 100% contained after weeks of blazing away in the Panhandle.

At last count, the fire had claimed over 1 million acres of land, while a nearby fire, the Windy Deuce, claimed over 140,000 acres. Two people and an untold number of livestock died in those wildfires – and wildlife was also affected.

Jacob Dykes, an assistant professor and extension wildlife specialist at Texas A&M Agrilife, said despite the impacts on wild animals and vegetation, he expects to see the area bounce back.

“One thing to remember is both the vegetative community and wildlife have evolved with fire on the landscape,” he said. “Of course, when a fire comes through you see a loss in both cover and nutrition. But this is a good time of the year for a burn to occur. So with precipitation, I expect to see the vegetative community flourish fairly quickly.”

Dykes said it is hard to calculate the exact damage when talking about over a million acres of burned land, but he said animals have instincts to protect them during fires.

“Typically when a fire comes through, critters such as, say, whitetail deer, pronghorn or something like that, they know it’s coming,” he said. “They see it; they smell it. They get out of the way. Birds, of course, get out of the way. Burrowing animals will hunker down. They’ll also get out of the way.

“And oftentimes with these fires, they’re just not burning everything in their path. There’s going to be these areas that are left unburned. And these will act as refuges for wildlife and stuff. So one thing to remember is wildlife is going to be up and at it. They’re going to be moving around; they’re going to be searching for resources and things like that.”

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Dykes said he understands that some people might be tempted to help out wild animals they see after the fire, but it’s best to let nature recover on its own.

“I personally am not going to recommend feeding wildlife. Honestly, the negatives outweigh the positives in most cases,” he said. “When it comes to a burn, especially one at this scale, you are going to see some stress from these wild critters. So the last thing you want to do is artificially concentrate those animals that are already stressed into areas that maybe they wouldn’t want to be in. You’re increasing the potential for disease, parasite transmission, things like that, that can really be detrimental.”

However, Dykes reiterated that with a little bit of rain, the Panhandle’s wildlife will be on the road to recovery.

“Typically with a fire like this, what you’re going to see is especially this time of year, a lot of those dormant grasses and vegetation and stuff like that are going to be broken down quickly. Those nutrients are going to go into the soil,” he said. “And typically you’ll see a really, really cool and very important response from the vegetation community, especially if you can get some precipitation on the landscape, and that vegetation that’s going to come back after this fire is going to be more nutritious.”

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