Local Wildlife Affected By Drought And Fires

Jan. 23, 2006

The recent drought and wildfires that have scorched Texas and Oklahoma are not just causing problems for residents, but also local wildlife. Dr. Susan Bratton, chair of Baylor University's department of environmental studies, said the lack of rain could affect everything from reproduction rates in animals and plants to total displacement of some species if the drought continues.

"I don't know if we are in a super-crisis right now, but I think if we go into a second year on this, we could see some wide-ranging effects," Bratton said.

Many locations around Texas and Oklahoma recorded 2005 precipitation totals 10 to 20 inches below normal and most of north and central Texas is in the extreme to exceptional drought classification, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

With a drought, Bratton said one of the first things residents will notice is the displacement of some species, something she fears is already happening. "We were going to go out and do some bird observations at a local lake and we're afraid the lower water levels will move them out of their usual feeding areas. That doesn't make it very appropriate study for students."

But while the displacement of some species is temporary, other effects of the drought on wildlife are longer lasting. If the dry conditions continue into spring, it could bring plant regeneration and some types of wildlife reproduction to a grinding halt.

"I'd worry most about the organisms that are moisture dependant in their habitats, things like salamanders and some amphibians if ponds are drying up. It could be a very bad reproductive year," Bratton said.

But not all wildlife will see negative effects from a prolonged drought. For example, some insects, although pesky, thrive in these conditions. "When you have a few years of very below average rainfall, the trees get stressed and dry up. They become much more prone to insect outbreaks," Bratton explained.

There also are behavioral changes animals go through during a time of drought. Dr. Heidi Marcum, a Baylor professor whose research focuses on wildlife behavior, said some species will actually become less active to conserve energy, so they will need less food and water. But other species will become more aggressive and that could lead to more contact with humans as they search for resources.

"I think we will see more animals coming into the rural communities, searching for water sources, like when people water their lawns," Marcum said.

Contact: Frank Raczkiewicz, (254) 710-1964

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