First and foremost, the Sheriff's heart goes out to all those in the Southern Interior devastated by this year's record-setting wildfires. Life will never be the same for so many who have suffered so much.
However, the Sheriff has not heard anyone talking about the impact on Mother Nature's creatures. What about the thousands of birds, animals, reptiles and other wildlife - entire generations that have lived here for eons?
Every time the Sheriff explores the blackened toothpicks left in Myra-Bellevue and Okanagan Mountain provincial parks from the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park wildfire, he's sad for what was and will never be again in his lifetime. Sure, Mother Nature is remarkably resilient, the undergrowth is back and new wildlife has moved in but it's just not the same mysterious backcountry wilderness as it once was when it was filled with magnficent trees.
That sentiment will probably be even stronger when the Sheriff is allowed back into familiar Okanagan forests, now only ash and the charred remnants of burned trees. Who better to put this into perspective than local naturalists, especially two naturalists who are also biologists.
"I can see that you see life and nature quite differently than do I," said Les Gyug who was in charge of the 2023 Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park Bird and Critter Count for the Central Okanagan Naturalists' Club.
"I see a burn (even a severe burn) as a place alive with animals and vegetation - just not as many big trees as there were before. Burned habitats are different, not better or worse, just different. There are many post-fire specialist species because the post-fire habitat has been a constant through evolutionary time - just as constant as the mature forest state (at least in the dry interior), and the many various shades and mosaics between those two extremes."
Gyug thinks the "green curtain" that was Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park before the 2003 wildfire was an illusion created by 50 years of relatively benign weather and disruption in the natural scheme of things - "fire history, thanks to us."
"The natural state of things here is a mosaic of grasslands and forests in a constant mix of regenerative states and ages. Burns (big and small, severe or light, depending on elevation, local climate, prior forest conditions, tree species mix, etc.) are just as natural as forest, whether our outlook may be attuned to that or not. We really don't have much of a choice in that one. On our oxygen-rich planet, things will oxidize (i.e. burn or rust, etc.) And the hotter the atmosphere gets, the greater will be the catalyst for oxidation of vegetation (whether forest or grassland)."
His simple takeaway is that, over time, populations of more wildlife species benefit from a wildfire than were harmed.
"Large mammal numbers simply exploded in the park after the fire. The forage that was lacking under the thick conifer canopy became superabundant in just a few years after the fire. Numbers of elk, moose, mule deer, mountain goat and bighorn sheep (which required a transplant because they had been extirpated from the thick forests of the park) were far higher than before. I remember doing one jaw-dropping overflight in 2009 where the numbers were simply astounding compared to the flights I had done before 2003. Whichever way we turned the helicopter, we would run into another ungulate or herd of ungulates. The same happened for most small mammals (except Red Squirrels that need conifer cones)."
"As another biologist, I’m totally aligned with you," added Douglas Graham, CONC president. "If the impact of the fires is ultimately beneficial biologically, the impact from a recreational perspective is different. For sure, the loss/alteration of favourite forests or favourite vistas is going to have an impact on recreational users and there will be some grieving. That being said, nature-focused outdoor recreation, the raison d’être of CONC, is ultimately about being in sync with nature, and understanding and protecting natural processes. Thus, even the apparently negative impacts on recreational users can instead be seen as an opportunity to understand and participate in natural changes and processes."
Of course, from a human and economic perspective, the impacts of the fires are horrendous, Graham said. "And there is no minimizing that. CONC extends its deepest sympathies to everybody who has been impacted by the fires, especially the many families who have lost their homes."
The annual Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park Bird and Critter Count documents the observations of bird life, mammals, reptiles, unusual insects including butterflies, and flowering plants or other plants of note.
This ritual for Central Okanagan Naturalists' Club members is held during the last weekend of May or the first weekend of June when parties of observers record all wildlife seen or heard.
The count was initiated in 1993 so it includes 11 years of data prior to the 2003 firestorm that burned 99% of the park. This study provides a unique opportunity to examine long-term changes in bird species' abundance and continues to be the only long-term study of a bird community before-and-after a major fire in the mountain forests of western North America.
When Gyug compared the 11 years before the fire (1993-2003) to eight years after the fire (six counts 2006-11, park closed 2004-05), 165 species were tallied. The average number of species per count was significantly higher after the burn (104.6) than before (96.3). Of 90 species considered common enough for meaningful statistical analyses, 28 increased in relative abundance after the fire, 11 decreased and there was no significant difference for 51 species.
In June of this year, 25 observers tallied 1,733 birds of 92 species on 13 routes in 45 party-hours. Most birds that increased in numbers after the 2003 firestorm continue to do well but observers started to see decreases from maximum post-fire numbers. The most successful shrub-habitat birds have done quite well, however, some forest birds continue to do rather poorly. The most common critters were Yellow-pine Chipmunk (42), Yellow-bellied Marmot (8), Columbian Ground Squirrel (8) and Red Squirrel (5).
This week's Secret Okanagan Spots in the SOS series are in the Central and South Okanagan.
Brandt's Creek Linear Park is the Sheriff's favourite creekside trail as it winds through numerous public parks and two tunnels from Summit Drive to Union Road in Kelowna's Glenmore Valley. However, only neighbours play at Millard Glen Park on Millard Court West at the north end. The SOS spot is what the Sheriff calls Secret Pond at the north end of the park that you share with only the ducks interested in whether you brought treats for them.
The second SOS spot is long-forgotten Old Kaleden Road which parallels the South Spur of the Kettle Valley Railway aka KVR Trail. You can apparently access it off Highway 97 up the steep hill from Okanagan Falls (traffic!) but the Sheriff climbs the challenging hill (he had to push his e-bike even with walk-assist) on the left just north of the Skaha Lake bridge in Okanagan Falls. This gravel roadway has panoramic views from above the lake and it returns to the KVR Trail near Kaleden.
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.