Native Species Among Victims of Calif. Fires, Floods Recent wildfires and flooding in Southern California have wiped out populations of native fish and amphibians in the region. Scientists warn that officials need to do more to ensure that the state's dwindling native species survive.
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Native Species Among Victims of Calif. Fires, Floods

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Native Species Among Victims of Calif. Fires, Floods

Native Species Among Victims of Calif. Fires, Floods

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Scientists in Southern California are still estimating the toll from last fall's massive wildfires. Those fires destroyed over $1 billion worth of property. Now it's clear the fires and the mudslides that followed also wiped out populations of native fish and amphibians.

NPR's Carrie Kahn reports on efforts to save some of the creatures that are still left.

CARRIE KAHN: In California, fires and mudslides go together like Paris Hilton and paparazzi. Whenever you have one, the other isn't far behind.

Just ask Adam Backlin, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. He's an expert on California's ecology, not Paris Hilton.

NORRIS: In Southern California, the fires generally occur in the fall. When the fires go out, it's usually a matter of weeks to when we get our winter rain.

KAHN: Backlin says the fires burn all the vegetation off the steep hillsides, and then, just a few weeks later, boom, the rains arrive.

NORRIS: And those rains create mudslides and debris flows. Those move very quickly through the canyons. And anything that's an aquatic species really has no chance in those situations.

KAHN: Such was the fate this winter of the Santa Ana speckled dace. That's a fish about the size of a minnow.

NORRIS: We're going to try to go here through this little rift of the canyon and see if we can go under the fence easily, otherwise, we'll have to go over it.

KAHN: Just off a two-lane highway in eastern Orange County, Robert Fisher, another biologist with the USGS, climbs down the embankment, crawls under a barbed wire fence, and hikes out to a wide, dry creek bed. Everything here is burned.

NORRIS: So the spring is right up here or was right up here.

KAHN: Fisher heads towards several large boulders that form the walls of a deep pool once fed by a natural spring. It was a quiet oasis for the tiny fish just feet from the busy road and downstream from the densely populated Orange County canyons. Now it's entirely filled in with junk.

NORRIS: It's all kinds of material that's washed down from the upper canyons. It's probably got chunks of house that burned up up there.

KAHN: Fisher says nothing can survive under that solid mass. He was planning to come to this pool right after the October firestorms to remove the fish, but the rains and all the debris came much quicker than expected. Nearby habitats for the Harding Canyon trout and the Arroyo turtle were also wiped out.

Mr. FISHER It's a sad story because we're - we weren't able to kind of do anything in time. And partly, you know, these are unplanned events. And so now that they are happening more regularly - every four years, it seems like. We need to be able to have a plan in place to save them.

KAHN: Fire and flooding have long been part of Southern California's ecology. But as people and homes move deeper into the national forests, and fires burn more fiercely and frequently, biologists say species can't recover like they used to. Take the case of the California native mountain yellow-legged frog.

NORRIS: So this is the Applied Animal Ecology lab here at CRES, where we're working with the mountain yellow-legged frogs. They're a critically endangered species. There's only eight populations left in Southern California.

KAHN: Frank Santana is a research assistant at the San Diego Zoo's conservation facility. About two years ago, USGS biologists brought him 80 mountain yellow-legged tadpoles rescued from a burned out region of the San Bernardino Mountains.

NORRIS: They're getting so big that we're really running out of room for them. We had to add - we started off with only four tanks. We had to add four more. And we're just really - you know, they're growing so well. And you know, we didn't really anticipate that they would do so well.

KAHN: Santana says he's hoping other zoos will take half of the frogs for a captive-breeding colony, and biologists will return the other half to their habitat in the local mountains. That's if another fire doesn't come through first.

Biologist Adam Backlin says authorities need to do more to save California's threatened animals. He said officials know where the endangered species live. And they know where the mudslides will flow after a fire. People are routinely evacuated from those areas.

NORRIS: Forward planning up to this point has been for people, and safety, and loss of property, and not for any natural resources. We haven't had any of this forward planning. And I think it's time that they have to start or we're going to start losing species pretty quickly.

KAHN: He says he hopes such planning can be up and running before California's next fire season. Because it's a given when there's fire, mudslides will follow as sure as paparazzi after Paris Hilton.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

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