SAN DIEGO — The severe drought gripping California has wide-reaching implications for the state’s wildlife — though not always in the way you might think, according to experts.
The Golden State’s diverse array of native animals — “many of which can be found nowhere else on the face of the earth” — are largely adapted for occasional droughts, says Rebecca Barboza, a wildlife biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
But the current conditions go beyond what the animals have evolved to deal with.
In a phone interview with FOX5SanDiego.com, Barboza outlined the reality for wildlife dealing with hotter, drier years and parched habitats.
Drought leads to a kind of chain reaction, starting with smaller animals like rodents and other little herbivores, the biologist explained. Dry conditions lead to fewer nutrients for the critters to graze on, and their bodies start to weaken.
At first, that’s a boon for predators, who scoop up fatigued and malnourished prey with ease, Barboza said. But as the quality of their meals declines, the carnivores feel the pain too.
Food and water become scarce in an animal’s immediate surroundings. Small animals have a small “home range” surrounding their burrow or nest, Barboza said, meaning they can’t just pick up and move a significant distance in search of better options.
Larger animals like deer and bears face different challenges. As they migrate to the areas with sufficient food and water, they’re packed together more closely than they would be naturally. The animals’ weakened states and concentration help diseases spread more quickly. Prey and predator drink at the same watering hole.
Meantime, wildfires become more frequent and severe. When flames scorch large swaths of California wildlands, the plants destroyed don’t always grow back, Barboza said. Invasive grass species sometimes take their place, creating a “monoculture” where there was once a variety of nutritious plant life.
Driving animals into your neighborhood?
You might have heard someone suggest the drought is driving animals like bobcats, coyotes and bears deeper into residential areas. Maybe someone anecdotally said they’ve seen more wild animals lately, tying it to the search for food and water.
But Barboza said the drought isn’t actually a leading factor in “human-wildlife conflict.”
“From my perspective, this is really nothing out of the ordinary,” she told FOX 5. “We’d be seeing expansion into urban areas regardless of the drought.”
Barboza said people leaving out food for animals is more of an issue in drawing wildlife into rural and suburban neighborhoods. In parts of California where homes border wilderness areas, like canyons or forests, animals have already adapted for “urban-dwelling.”
If they know backyards are an easy source of nutrition — either because homeowners think they’re helping by leaving out food, or they’re just careless with pet food — animals will continue seeking out that source.
“The best thing that they can do … is to remove or minimize anything that’s going to be drawing animals onto their properties,” Barboza said.
The drought is certainly forcing animals to travel farther in search of nutrition, but it’s not the primary reason you’re seeing more coyotes or mountain lions, the biologist concluded.
A helping hand
Dry conditions have forced wildlife officials to make extraordinary interventions elsewhere in the West, like in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the Rio Grande ran dry for the first time in four decades. Biologists stepped in to transfer an endangered minnow species to safety.
Barboza polled some colleagues on interventions happening now in California. The Department of Fish and Wildlife makes direct efforts on land that it owns. It partners with other agencies and private property owners to help animals deal with extreme conditions elsewhere.
In central and Northern California, the department has been transporting some salmon further upstream. In Southern California, biologists are working to reintroduce the vulnerable California red-legged frog to areas it historically flourished.
Barboza asked average people to get back to basics in helping animals during this perilous time. Clean up after yourself when you visit state parks, don’t pollute the state’s waterways and don’t feed wild animals — even if you have the best of intentions.
You can learn more about Fish and Wildlife’s drought response on the department’s website.