Los Angeles wildfire drives wildlife to backyards

Steve Gorman, Reuters 4 Sep 09;

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - For residents of the scenic foothill communities above Los Angeles, chance encounters with deer, coyote and other wildlife are commonplace. The occasional bear or mountain lion will even wander into a backyard.

They're about to become more visible.

As the threat to humans from the 10-day-old Station Fire subsides, allowing displaced families to settle back into their homes, four-legged refugees are starting to emerge dazed, injured and hungry from the charred chaparral of the San Gabriel Mountains.

The Los Angeles County Public Health Department issued an advisory to residents on Friday warning them to "avoid wild animals that may have been displaced by the fires" and urging people not to feed them.

Animal control agencies say more residents are calling to report distressed or nuisance wildlife, and they expect those calls to increase as critters frightened into hiding from the fire begin to forage again for food and water.

"The wildlife will start coming down closer to urban areas outside of places you would normally expect them," said Ricky Whitman, spokeswoman for the Pasadena Humane Society.

"Some people have reported seeing injured animals -- bears, some deer," she said. "We got a call from a woman yesterday ... and her backyard was loaded with deer. But she was upset because they were eating her bushes. They're hungry, they're thirsty, they've been driven out by the fire and they really might eat your bushes."

More than 145,000 acres have burned, mostly in Angeles National Forest, in what is now the 10th largest fire on record in California.

One prominent resident of the fire zone is a mountain lion known to frequent ridgelines above NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, an area that burned last week. But the big cat has not been seen since the blaze.

MORE DESPERATE, MORE BRAZEN

Coyotes, which regularly roam foothill neighborhoods to prey on small pets, may become more brazen than usual in their search for a meal.

"My advice to people in the foothills is to keep your domestic animals inside, cats and dogs, and certainly children," Whitman said.

Experts say the biggest long-term fire threat may be to some of the least-noticed forest denizens: imperiled amphibians such as the mountain yellow-legged frog and arroyo toad, or birds such as the cactus wren or California spotted owl.

These creatures already are suffering from the effects of urbanization and can little afford further fragmentation of habitat, U.S. Forest Service biologist Leslie Welch said.

"The deer, the raccoons, the bear, none of these are endangered. Not that we shouldn't care about them, but they're going to be OK as a species," said Travis Longcore, a University of Southern California wildlife specialist.

Large-scale incineration of dense mountain vegetation in the San Gabriel Mountains may not be all bad for some species.

Bighorn sheep, which inhabit higher elevations and thrive in areas where their chief predator, mountain lions, have less cover, actually appeared to have grown in number following previous fires in the San Gabriels, Welch said.

The Humane Society provides temporary shelter for wildlife, but so far has been busier dealing with the pets of evacuees.

"Someone brought us six wild ducks that they saw coming down out of the mountains when the fire was going," Whitman said. "We got them a big portable swimming pool. They might have been confused but they were really happy."

(Editing by Mary Milliken and Will Dunham)

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