Dozens of elk roam the parking lots and side streets at Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone's northernmost geothermal attraction, situated near the park's northend by the Montana border.
A visitor there might assume the elk have been driven to feed on the lawns and small trees there because of the fire nearby that has been burning since June 25, but the elk have been a regular attraction at the visitors center for several years.Firefighters, law enforcement officers and other park service personnel have been looking for animals killed by the fire to determine the toll the summer's blazes had on Yellowstone's wildlife.
John Varley, Yellowstone's research chief, said the number of animals actually killed by the fire is the most significant short-term impact of the fires being evaluated by animal biologists.
"`There's been surprisingly few (deaths) compared to the number of animals exposed," Varley said. "We've got a tally under way."
"You're going to get tired of my saying this, but the fires will actually have a positive impact on the animals," he said.
About 32,000 elk, 2,700 bison and 2,000 mule deer were roaming the park when the fires started. The deaths of about 50 elk, four bison and several mule deer have been tied directly to the fire. Officials have also found five dead moose and one dead brown bear.
Bears had already begun feeding on some of the killed elk before the carcasses were spotted. Fire has not been determined as the cause for some of the deaths, Varley said
The elk are now in the midst of the mating season, and elk enthusiasts who care to practice elk calling techniques can almost arrange a private tutorial froma bull elk roaming the visitors center.
"There is no apparent effect on the mating season," Varley said. "Having watched a number of mating seasons in the past years, I or the scientists directly studying them don't see any stress or abnormal aspects."
The bulls call and the cow elk graze so close to motor traffic that some of the visitors lining the street have to back up to get good pictures with their video cameras.
The fires have probably affected the bison more than other animals, because they have been displaced early from summer grazing ranges, but park officials don't know if fire or drought caused the bison to move early. "We can't yet separate the effects of the drought and the fire," Varley said.
A mother of several children who attend school nearby said theirs is probably the only school in the nation where the teachers have to make sure the playground is cleared of elk, bison and antelope before they let the children out for recess.
Drought has affected the summer ranges for several years, and roughly 15 percent of the winter range was burned by the fires, Varley said.
Each fall, all of the large animals leave their summer range and are dependent on body fat to carry them through the winter, Varley said. "The quality of winter forage only figures in the rate that fat is metabolized."
There have never been supplemental feeding programs in Yellowstone, and initiating a feeding program this winter would be unprecedented, Varley said. "But (Interior Secretary Donald) Hodel has asked us to consider that possibility and we'll certainly do that. But a decision on that would have to await more factual information."
October will likely pass before scientists can accurately calculate the effect the fires had on winter feeding areas.
Few of the park's small-animal species lived in the lodgepole pines that cover much of the park, and that suffered the most damage in the fires, Varley said. A number of chipmunks and squirrels undoubtedly perished in the fire, "But they have the reproductive capacity to come back very fast _ even in one year."
A three-to-five-fold increase in the number of bird species will be seen beginning next year. Dead trees attract insects _ ants, termites, beetles and the like _ and insects attract birds, Varley said. Overnight campers and hikers awakened by chattering squirrels last year will be awakened next year by the rapping of woodpeckers.
Weather conditions this winter will also play a major role in the wildlife's well-being. "We've had seven mild winters in a row and if we get an eighth mild winter we may not have any more problems than we normally would have," Varley said. "There's an over-winter mortality factor every year. Whether that will go up is in some question."
Fire retardant chemicals dropped from helicopters and airplanes have been blamed for killing some fish, but Yellowstone's research biologist, Donald Despain, speculated the park's fish will benefit from conditions left by the fire.
The root system just beneath the ash-covered soil will keep erosion during the spring runoff to a minimum, and the "little bit of nutrient" that washes into the streams will feed the plants that aquatic invertebrates thrive on, which in turn will provide more food for fish, Despain said.
Fallen logs also deter erosion by trapping mud that might otherwise wash into brooks and streams, Despain said. "By July the streams will be crystal clear, unless you come within a few minutes of a thunderstorm."
A two-year sediment study conducted on the Lamar River in northern Yellowstone will give biologists a good pre-fire comparison to conditions now.
The fires also burned tree canopies that not only shaded the forest floor but shaded streams as well. "In California that's bad because the streams there are almost too hot for fish. Here we're at the cold end, so if you take that shadeaway it brings the temperature closer to the optimum."
Plant biologists, like Despain and others working with him, are working closely with wildlife biologists because of the interrelationship between the park's plants and animals.
Animals will return quickly to the most severely burned areas, Despain said as he stirred a clump of ash and dirt to find tiny shoots of green growing from beneath the burned grass and "duff." Next spring the ground vegetation there will be abundant _ Ross's sedge, elk sedge, leafy aster, fireweed, heartleafed arnica, wild strawberries, liverworts, nodding brome, downy oat grass, Canada bluegrass and dandelions will flourish.
CHART The following graph contains the most up-to-date statistics on the eight major fires burning both in Yellowstone Naional Park and on adjacent National Forest land in the greater Yellowstone area. Only the Fan Fire is completely inside the park's boundries. While most of the fires have been contained, none of the fires have been declared completely under control,nor have control dates been set. The Hellroaring and North Fork fires were human caused; the six others were started by lightning, and some of those are the result of smaller fires that grew together. The Wolf Lake Fire is part of the North Fork Fire but is listed separately because it was fought under separate command. Fire Name: Started Acres Burned Contained
Fan Fire June 25 23,325 September 2 Clover-Mist Clover:July 11 Mist:July 9 411,500 October 12
Hellroaring Fire August 15 81,950 September 11
Huck/Mink Complex August 20 228,100 September 15
North Fork July 22 400,100 October 11
Snake River Complex Red: July 11 Shoshone: June 23 Falls: July 12 221,400 Storm Creek Fire July 3 107,847 September 17
Wolf Creek Fire 107,500 October 10
Approximately 25,000 individual firefighters have been in the park during thecourse of the summer fire season. The most firefighters in Yellowstone at one time was approximately 9,600 on September 5.
Firefighting costs for the greater Yellowstone area are estimated currently at about $112 million; $100 million of that has been spent fighting fires inside Yellowstone's boundaries.