In The California Drought, These Animals Are The Silent Sufferers

With no end in sight and hopes pinned on a wet winter, the California drought has left an entire community dependent on bottled water provisions, threatened farmers’ livelihoods and prompted a $7.5 billion water bond measure.

Amid those challenges, it’s easy to forget that the drought is not just a human issue. While our homes still stand, thousands of these other native Californians’ homes have evaporated, burned to the ground and heated up beyond habitation -- painting a grim preview of ecosystems suffering extreme damage if the drought continues. Here are some of the animals most threatened by those dry conditions.

  • Owls And Other Raptors
    Orange County’s Audubon Starr Ranch Sanctuary’s popular <a href="http://starrranch.org/blog/" target="_blank">Barn Owl cam</a
    Orange County’s Audubon Starr Ranch Sanctuary’s popular Barn Owl cam has provided viewers with little to see this year thanks to what experts are calling the worst breeding season on record for raptors, Audubon Magazine reported in August. The nesting pair laid just one egg -- compared to many in previous years -- and abandoned it before hatching, leaving the embryo to die.

    Zoologist and environmental consultant Peter Bloom warned that while this pair's particular case may not be the direct result of the drought, it is a grim reflection of how many suffering raptors are struggling to reproduce in dry conditions.

    Starr Ranch manager Peter DeSimone told the magazine that several of the 11 raptor species in the sanctuary have not been nesting on the land and are nowhere to be seen -- likely because of dwindling prey populations, such as mice, that rely on grass and plants that haven’t grown in the dry conditions.

    Researchers and animal caretakers across the state have hypothesized similarly and agreed that the states of the species are unprecedented.

    They’re skinny, they’re weak and they’re just not doing well,” veterinarian Kristi Krause of Lakeforest’s Serrano Animal and Bird Hospital told the Orange County Register. “This is probably the worst I’ve seen it.”

    Devastating wildfires linked to the dry conditions have also ravaged some habitats. Last month, Al Jazeera America reported that rangers in Yosemite National Park are investigating how great gray owl habitats were impacted by the Rim fire, the third largest in California history.

    We are not detecting great gray owls at as many sites as before the fire,” park ornithologist Sarah Stock told Al Jazeera, adding that 20 percent of the species’ nesting habitat burned in the fire. While great gray owls nest in tree snags -- a tree that is dead or dying but still standing -- the Rim fire incinerated most trees beyond habitation.

    “With predictions of more frequent, hotter fires, it means that great gray owls might not be able to come back to these areas under the present climate scenario,” Stock said.
  • Deer
    When “fawn-whisperer” Diane Nicolas of Placer County’s Kindred Spirits Fawn Rescue first started rescuing distressed deer in
    Justin Sullivan via Getty Images
    When “fawn-whisperer” Diane Nicolas of Placer County’s Kindred Spirits Fawn Rescue first started rescuing distressed deer in 2006, she cared for just 25 that year, NBC’s KCRA-TV reported. This year she has already brought in 122 deer, largely due to drought-parched food sources.

    “There is not as much food to forage on, so they are coming down lower,” animal control officer Terri Koeckritz told the station. “That means they are crossing more unfamiliar roads and encountering more cars.”

    In recent years, California’s deer population has dropped to just half a million, one-fourth of what it was in the 1960s, Al Jazeera America reported in February. Their dwindling numbers can be blamed greatly on habitat loss and, to a lesser extent, hunting. The drought has only exacerbated the problem, forcing deer into dangerously close quarters.

    “Such activity during a severe drought can concentrate these animals and help spread parasites and disease,” Jason Holley, a wildlife biologist supervisor for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, told Al Jazeera. “It can also attract predators, such as mountain lions.”
  • Mallards And Other Waterfowl
    Mallard ducks in California have<a href="http://cdfgnews.wordpress.com/2014/05/29/cdfw-completes-2014-waterfowl-breeding-popu
    David McNew via Getty Images
    Mallard ducks in California have experienced a 20 percent drop in population in the last year, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) announced in May, attributing the breeding struggles to the hot, dry climate and poor habitat conditions.

    “[Water] deliveries were reduced not just to farmers, but to state and federal refuges,” Greg Yarris of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told Audubon Magazine. “When you have reduced wetland, there is a reduced breeding success," he said of the state’s mallard populations, which frequently make the state their home throughout every season.

    Additionally, the forced concentration of mallards and other waterfowl on remaining water sources has made those sites a hotbed for disease. The CDFW’s Wildlife Investigations Lab reported in February that it had already investigated several avian cholera outbreaks that winter.

    “Close contact among waterfowl allows a bacterial disease like avian cholera to spread very rapidly, resulting in the death of hundreds to thousands of birds,” CDFW scientific aid Tom Batter wrote.
  • Salmon
    Salmon die-off in California has been so concerning this year that researchers have been collecting freshly hatched babies an
    Salmon die-off in California has been so concerning this year that researchers have been collecting freshly hatched babies and transporting them to hatcheries with the hopes of releasing them in areas where they’re more likely to survive.

    In a drought year like this, fish are going to die,” Gary Curtis, a Senior Environmental Scientist for the CDFW, told ABC News last month while working on the Scott River. “We can’t have thousands and millions of dead fish washed up on the streams. We just can’t.”

    With shallow water heating up to dangerously high levels, salmon swimming upstream were trapped and forced to lay their eggs in water inhospitable to newborns.

    The salmon devastation has become a tense political issue in some communities. Along the Klamath River, where salmon are already experiencing a gill rot disease that rattled the population in 2002, Native American tribes have begged officials to release cold water from the federally managed Trinity Lake reservoir upstream, National Public Radio reported last month. The water could save the migrating salmon, but officials have already promised that water to farmers hundreds of miles away growing almonds.


California Drought