When lighting struck the Pinaleño Mountains in southeast Arizona about 2:45 p.m. on June 7, igniting a 48,000-acre fire that reduced an ancient forest to blackened poles and stumps, a scurry of rare squirrels — 217 of the 252 left in existence — disappeared.
Some were fitted with radio transmitters that burned to ash; conservationists deduced their fates. They hoped others had managed to escape.
But for those 35 survivors — biological remnants from the last ice age — Jeff Humphrey, a spokesman with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was deeply concerned.
“Most of them have lost the cones they’ve stored for their winter nourishment,” Humphrey said. “How do we get them through this winter?”
The Mount Graham red squirrel is among more than a dozen rare or threatened species that perished or suffered habitat loss during recent hurricanes and wildfires across the United States.
The red squirrel was not the only creature affected during the Arizona wildfires, intensified by heat waves in the state’s south.
After the fire, biologists and wildlife officers rescued Gila and Apache trout from forest streams before the water became clogged with ash, which happens when normal forest ground cover isn’t there to filter the runoff.
The Mexican spotted owl, which lives in wooded and canyon areas throughout New Mexico and southern Utah, was vulnerable. “Its primary threat is wildfires, but it’s far more abundant,” Humphrey said.
In Southern California, the mountain yellow-legged frog, of which there were about 400 living in drying streams in the San Gabriel, San Bernardino and San Jacinto mountains, could face a hard winter after fires destroyed their habitat. Dr. Bruce Stein, a conservation scientist at the National Wildlife Federation, said he worried for the California red-legged frog in wine country, as well as for endangered salmon and steelhead living in the Russian River (as in Arizona, sediment flowing into the water could harm the fish).
One of North America’s rarest species, the Amargosa vole, lost part of its remaining habitat in a September fire in the Amargosa Basin near Tecopa, California.
About 50 of the few hundred remaining mammals perished, said Janet Foley, a professor at the University of California Davis Veterinary Medicine protection program. “It killed off all the vegetation,” she said, “and they need to live in that.”
Just five of the 29 rare prairie chickens being tracked at the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge near Houston survived Hurricane Harvey. The bird was critically endangered. During the last century, its prairie grassland habitat in Texas and Louisiana was plowed to create space for farmlands and cities.
“It was a devastating impact,” said Mike Morrow, the refuge’s lead biologist. “The good news is we have an established captive breeding program,” he said.
Whooping cranes “dodged a bullet,” Stein said, when Harvey made landfall at their winter spot in Aransas County. At that time, the bird was breeding in Canada, but had it been in Texas, the species could have been wiped out, said Stein. “The concern is what effect the hurricane may have had on the habitat,” he added. Ocelots (a small Texan cat) and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, which conservationists feared would be affected, also managed to survive the storm.
Irma hit a number of species hard, including the Barbuda warbler and the Everglade snail kite. In Florida’s Keys — which Stein referred to as a “biological hot spot” — the storm was bad news for butterflies like the Miami blue, Schaus swallowtail and Bartram’s hairstreak, as well as green and loggerhead sea turtles and Key deer.
The Key deer is “a really charismatic animal,” said Brian Hires, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Fewer than 1,000 Key deer are left in existence. All but 33 survived the storm, but may face challenges with restricted access to fresh drinking water. The Miami blue butterfly (there are fewer than 100 left) are only “hanging on in a couple of Keys,” Stein said.