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Wildfire Season And Drought Pressure People, Wildlife

Melorie Begay
David Lemke describes the change in forests around the Pecos River. Lemke owns the Santa Fe Fly Fishing School and is a member of the Upper Pecos Watershed Association.

New Mexico’s wildfire season started off early this year, and spring winds could make it worse. For people living near forests, this means preparing for potential evacuations and fire proofing homes. But, for wildlife, there’s a lot we don’t really know. 

High temperatures; dry forests and wind increase the threat of bigger wildfires, said Laura McCarthy the director of the Nature Conservancy. 

”Those were the exact conditions when the Los Conchas fire burned. Which was for me one of the most terrifying fires I’ve seen,” McCartny said.

The Las Conchas fire tore through over 150,000 acres of the Santa Fe National Forest in 2011. 

“The Los Conchas Fire was a wake up call to everyone who had been working in fire management and restoration," McCarthy said,  "‘that oh my goodness, the things we’ve been doing are too small scale. They’re not making a difference.”

This, McCarthy said, spurred the creation of the Rio Grande Water Fund. They support forest restoration and are working to study impacts on animals.

As of this month, 80 percent of the state is in severe or extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. 

“We’re probably never going to stop using the word drought, " said John Fled the director of New Mexico Water Resources. He said using the term aridification makes more sense. 

“What we’re really seeing here in the southwest is a shift toward a drier climate with less water,” Fleck said.

The state probably won’t go back to previous precipitation levels, he said, but this year is still a really bad year for water. 

“We just sort of need to be careful about thinking about what we mean and not use it as kind of a crutch to say “well it’s bad times right now, but it will get better soon.” he said.

Fleck points to the city of Albuquerque’s water consumption as a sign of adapting to less water. The city has cut per capita water use by more than half since 1995, even with population growth.        

“There are problems we can’t solve. We can’t irrigate the forests, we can’t add water. They’re just going to change, he said.

Credit U.S. Drought Monitor
This map compares the extent of New Mexico's drought this year to last year. The darker the color, the more severe drought. Credit the The National Drought Mitigation Center

For animals though, it’s a lot harder. Michael Robison, with The Center for Biological Diversity’s, said wildlife can adapt to less water, but they can’t change overnight.

“When we get into severe drought year, after year some of them can get stressed beyond what their species are used to," Robinson said.

Then there are other man made problems. Pronghorn antelopes have the natural ability to travel long distances for water, Robinson says, but they often have to cross roads to get there.

“Every animal has strategies for coping with drought," he said, "but those strategies were developed evolutionarily in a different world where there wasn’t much human development and other impacts. 

There’s a lack of data on how climate change will affect wildlife, and Robinson says experts need to be asking the right questions.

“How can we conserve water better and how can we make our natural ecosystems and both the wildlife and human communities that live in them more resilient?”  

David Lemke runs the Santa Fe Fly Fishing School and is the treasurer of the Upper Pecos Watershed Association.

"I decided to become a casting instructor and I did that mostly just to kind of be accountable to people about how I could get better at fly casting.”

Lemke teaches on the weekend and it takes him just seconds to get to his classroom. The Pecos River flows right through his backyard. But, over the years he's seen the river recede due to extreme flooding.

“Prior to 2013, the riverbank was over here. Where we’re standing now, we would be in water,” he said.

Credit Melorie Begay
Extreme flooding caused the river to recede about 10 feet Lemke said. The river used to come up to the wood pile at the right.

2013 was also the year the Tres Lagunas fire burned over 10,000 acres of forest in the Pecos region. Lemke said. the fire started 10 miles up a nearby canyon, but the ash and silt from the run off pretty much killed all the fish.  

And, because of the drier climate, Lemke doubts the water levels will ever return. And he said he doesn’t have much faith in government officials’ willingness to act on climate change policies - people should get involved with local conservation organizations instead. 

“I’m not concerned about my own stuff, I’m concerned about something that I like, that I love to do unfortunately might go away,” he said.

He’s lucky to catch a few fish these days, Lemke says. They just aren’t as abundant as they used to be. 

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