A preliminary assessment of the area scorched by the Rodeo-Chediski Fire indicates that wildlife loss may be minimal.
The assessment, recently conducted by motor vehicle and on foot, covered 209 miles of roads and trails in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests and utilized 139 man hours. Reservation lands affected by the fire were not included.
"Twenty Game and Fish people and three Forest Service biologists split the entire forest up into zones and we covered as much territory as we could," said Bruce Sitko, information and education program manager for the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
Only nine dead animals were found, while 112 live animals were spotted. In addition, 226 live birds were spotted, mostly mourning doves and songbirds.
"We saw lots of birds, including a goshawk and some others that are rarely seen anyway," said Sitko.
While the assessment only turned up three dead elk, the area surveyed did not include steep canyons where wildlife can be more easily trapped, primarily because most canyon areas are located on reservation lands.
"We did find a group of 22 elk down near Canyon Creek that got caught in the canyon and died so we suspect that might hold true for a lot of these steep canyons where the fire moved a lot faster," said Rory Aikens, public information officer for Game and Fish.
Total elk mortalities are "in the neighborhood of 35 and we only came up with two bear mortalities," said Sitko. "While this isn't an in-depth survey, from the early results we're getting most of the wildlife are OK."
Apparently wildlife mortality was lower than expected because the fire burned in a mosaic pattern. In fact, wildlife officials believe up to 30 percent of the vegetation was spared by the fire.
"The Forest Service generated a map showing that it burned in a nice mosaic pattern," said Aikens. "Some areas were pretty intense with wholesale burnouts, but all in all it wasn't too bad for wildlife. There were a lot of unburned areas that served as wildlife oases, and that's where they went to survive."
Sitko, who was one of those conducting the assessment, described what he saw as he walked through the charred forest.
"My vehicle route was through a very red area behind Overgaard where resource loss was probably 95 percent," he said. "There were lots of black tree skeletons, as we walked on the ground through there.
"It was very, very quiet. There were no birds, no elk, nothing, and the only fresh tracks we were getting were crows and ravens.
"But once we got out into some of the stuff that was a little less impacted, we started hearing lots and lots of birds, picking up groups of elk, as many as eight or more in a group."
The information gathered in this assessment will be put to use in the rehabilitation program just getting under way.
"It gives us some ideas for the next steps," said Sitko. "Of high importance right now is the quality of the habitat that's left, and a lot of that falls to the Forest Service as far as what they're going to do."
The Forest Service initiated an aerial reseeding program two weeks ago. The initial seeding, utilizing a grass seed mixture to rapidly establish cover, will encompass 10,000 acres north of the Mogollon Rim.
Meanwhile, Game and Fish is monitoring and maintaining water supplies for the wildlife.
"The assessment also told us what waters are available through there, and where we need to come in with some supplemental waters if some existing Game and Fish catchments, or dirt stock tanks, are dry where animals concentrate that's where we need to haul water to," said Sitko. "It's a matter of getting those basic needs wildlife have food, water back into some of these areas so we can stabilize the population."
Sitko said it is important for the wildlife to disperse over a larger area rather than to stay concentrated in pockets that were not touched by the fire.
The fire, which moved through 465,000 acres and destroyed 480 homes and other structures, is still not completely out.
"Right now there is a fire incident command team that is still in control of the fire, and they're headquartered in the Black Mesa Ranger District office in Overgaard," Sitko said. "There are still a few smoldering stumps and roots, and it will probably take a snow to put them out."
In the meantime, burned areas remain closed to the public.
"Any type of coming and going has to be coordinated through (the incident command team), and they'll probably be here until the end of August," Sitko said.
While fast-moving, "catastrophic" fires like the Rodeo-Chediski have a greater impact on habitats than more localized fires, Game and Fish officials say the end result is usually positive for wildlife.
"It saddens the heart to think about the impact to both people and animals, but we know in the long run the wildlife will come back even better," Sitko said. "The forest will be healthier as a result of this."
Donations to assist with water-hauling and the caring of injured wildlife can be mailed to: Wildlife for Tomorrow, c/o Arizona Game and Fish Department, 2221 W. Greenway Road, Phoenix 85023.
The agency urges people not to feed or water wildlife themselves, even those seemingly displaced by the fire, because it often leads to their destruction due to conflicts with humans.
People who find an injured or orphaned animal should leave it alone and call Game and Fish at (602) 789-3925 or (928) 367-4281.