Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge
P. O. Box 329
Columbia, North Carolina 27925

Contact: Howard Phillips- 252-796-3004 ext 226

News Release

June 11, 2008

Fire sends wildlife 'house' hunting

Photo credit- USFWS (taken June 7, 2008)

Bear Running Along Fence
This small black bear was observed attempting to run through a chain-link fence on Friday. The bear had been frightened by a dog and was simply trying to get away and hide. It finally squeezed under the fence and hid in a slash pile.

"What happens when a 35,000-plus-acre fire burns through the places where wildlife lives?"

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staffers in Columbia and Manteo are being inundated with questions like this one.

The nutshell answer is wildlife populations on Pocosin Lakes
National Wildlife Refuge and the surrounding area are resourceful and will weather the catastrophe just fine.

Need a little space, man...

Like people, wildlife have basic survival needs. They need air to breathe, food, water and shelter, such as dens, nests, hollows, or other areas to produce and rear their young in relative safety -- places that provide escape routes or hiding places from their enemies. Space is important because when they are too crowded, wildlife become stressed and behave differently. They just need places to live their lives.

Home hunting 101

Like any house-hunter, animals look around until they find something that suits them, and they set up housekeeping. Sometimes, they make surprising choices, but usually are pretty predictable. It's no accident that national wildlife refuges have a lot of wildlife. If likened to a business, refuge managers could work for Homes-R-Us as they plan very specifically to provide for the needs of a wide diversity of wildlife species.

It takes a village -- or lots of agencies

Congress has mandated that refuges specifically protect and manage "Trust Species" which include migratory birds, migratory fish, and any species protected by the Endangered Species Act as well as all wildlife species found on refuges at any given time.

On national wildlife refuges, non-trust species like black bear, white-tailed deer, 'possums, snakes, and many other species are the responsibility of the US Fish and Wildlife Service until they cross the refuge boundary. In North Carolina, once off the refuge, these species fall under the jurisdiction of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. On many levels and in many ways, the Service and the Commission work together to assure that wildlife in North Carolina are well-managed and protected.

So, what happens when their refuge burns?

"It would be unrealistic not to say there will be some animal
mortality," said Wendy Stanton, Wildlife Biologist for Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. "However, unlike domestic animals, wildlife in pocosin habitat have adapted in this fire-adapted ecosystem and have developed the instincts to survive. No one likes to see an individual animal suffer, but as biologists we think at the population level. This fire will benefit the majority of the habitat or homes where these populations of species live. In fact, as a management tool, we regularly conduct prescribed burns on the refuge. Not only do these fires produce prime wildlife habitat, they also reduce fuels- making wildfires less intense.

"I think we can safely say that most wildlife have been able to
escape the blaze. I would guess that the wildlife caught by the fire have been the ones that have tried to burrow down to escape the heat - since the fire is burning down into the peat soil in many areas. Also some later-nesting birds that have not fledged or learned to fly would have a harder time escaping. The majority of these populations would bounce back quickly. Almost all the wildlife on 35,000-plus acres have dispersed. They've had to leave their homes."

Stanton said that the displaced wildlife are usually heading toward the thinner smoke (where the air is clearer) and less heat and may behave very much like adolescent wildlife offspring when the parents chase them off from their home range. They wander until they find a place that suits them, and then they settle in. But, there can be a lot of trial and error in that process. Like human adolescents, they may get a few bumps and bruises along the way.

"As you can imagine, there is tremendous stress associated with running from a fire, and you get a lot of roaming wildlife that are not behaving very predictably," said Stanton. "In the early stages, they're likely looking for places to hide. But, as time goes on, they'll be looking for food."

Encounters of the wild kind

Folks should follow the same rules as always when seeing an animal roaming around or in an unusual place.

1. Do NOT feed wildlife. Feeding these animals might seem like the best way to help, but it will produce destructive behavior in wildlife- a situation not safe for wildlife or people.
2. Do NOT approach them, leave them alone. Usually, if given a little time, the animals will move on. They're looking for food and shelter. There is still plenty of water in the area in ditches and canals. If food or shelter is not provided, they will eventually move on. If there are bears in your yard, stay inside until they leave.
3. Do NOT leave any outdoor cooking equipment, bags of trash, containers of pet food, etc anywhere that may be accessible to wildlife.
4. If you encounter a bear, DO NOT RUN. Slowly wave your arms, make lots of noise and slowly back away from the animal.

Remember, these animals are scared and stressed. Use common sense and be aware of your and your children's surroundings.

Will the animals return to the refuge and other habitat after the fire is out?

Stanton says that's a likely scenario. "A few months - even a few weeks- after the fire is out, the refuge will begin to 'green-up' and provide even better habitat than what existed prior to the fire. The wildlife species we have on this refuge have adapted to a fire-based, even fire-dependent, environment. This hasn't been the first fire, and it’s likely it won't be the last fire we have in this area. But, we hope to have better water management and more areas safely burned through our prescribed fire program in the future."

The NC Wildlife Resources Commission has a WILDLIFE HOTLINE - 1-800-662-7137 where people may ask questions about wildlife issues. The NC District Biologist for the counties involved in the Evans Road Fire is Chris Turner. Turner advises to call the WILDLIFE HOTLINE if there are any emergencies or law enforcement-related issues relating to wildlife. "But, if folks have questions about the wildlife and their behavior, it's fine to call me at 252-221-9961," he added.

For more information about Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, visit http://www.fws.gov/pocosinlakes, or call the refuge office at 252-796-3004.

For more information on the Evans Road Fire, visit http://inciweb.org/state/34 or call the Evans Road Fire Information Center at 919-472-4101.