Everybody’s thirsty. The drought’s impact on all our wild neighbors.
Everyone is being impacted by the drought and it’s being seen in our local wild species, from insects to mammals. Loss of water and the ensuing loss of native plants mean less to drink as well as disrupted ecosystems. If global warming’s effects continue this trend of sustained drought, the question will be just how much will we lose?
We spoke to a variety of environmental experts to dig into the drought’s impact on local wildlife and plant species.
Here’s what we found.
What’s the state of the drought?
The deepening drought has sent Lake Mendocino into a tailspin, with less than 35% of the reservoir’s target water load for this time of year. Lake Sonoma is not much better, sitting at about 50% capacity.
As the drought rages on, local biologist Dana Riggs is concerned with ongoing loss of habitat due to receding water. Riggs, the founder and principal biologist at Sol Ecology — a Petaluma-based environmental consulting agency — said her agency is seeing premature drying out in ponds and creeks across the region.
“This impacts the breeding habitats for a lot of aquatic specie,s as well as connectivity for fish with pools and draw downs being so much earlier this year than what is normal,” she said.
In southern Sonoma County, Riggs said they’re seeing dry-down happening with a lot of wetlands that aren’t meeting normal criteria anymore. The concern grows as they look ahead to another drought year.
“One year is fine,” she said, “but a prolonged drought would be very disruptive to breeding.”
What will be impacted?
If a creek is no longer flowing, fish cannot move along it as they need to.
This will heavily impact frogs and other amphibians in the Santa Rosa Plain area, where the local tiger salamander is already endangered.
“Basically these species are not able to breed this year,” Riggs said.
Because some of the water sources that would normally be present right now are actually dry, animals are on the move, searching far and wide for water.
“This is affecting the distribution of animals,” Riggs said. “That increases their risk of impact, if they’re moving into areas that they wouldn’t normally be in this time of year. We’re seeing this all over the place.”
When larger, wandering wild animals encounter humans, North Bay Animal Services gets called. Executive Director Mark Scott said that a lack of water always forces wildlife to venture to anyplace they can find a drink. Outside of their habitat, animals are often simply running scared.
Casey O’Connell from Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue said the animals they’re seeing brought in are often dehydrated, and many have been hit by a car.
“It’s a good idea to be cautious on the backroads at night,” he said. “Animals are out roaming in the less populated areas at night and may be frightened, skittish and desperate for water.”
What’s our role?
The best way to be proactive is to maintain native vegetation, maintain habitat and maintain wildlife’s access to water. Setting out containers of water for larger wandering animals close to your home is not necessarily a good idea, as it can draw them in close to your home repeatedly. However, if there’s a natural water source on your land, Riggs encourages providing unobstructed access to those areas for wildlife.
Making sure you aren’t leaving unintentional food sources outside your home that may attract wandering animals is also a good practice. You don’t want them to return for more and become a nuisance, which can result in them being put down. Don’t leave garbage cans containing food outside at night, and bring in your bird feeders at night too.
Tom Gardali of Point Blue Conservation Science in Petaluma studies birds and said that helping supply water to birds with bird baths is a fine idea. He stressed the importance of keeping that water supply fresh and clean. He also noted the importance of not placing water out for birds in an area with a lot of free-roaming cats, which will put those birds in additional danger.
Gardali said he believes we may not see the impact upon bird populations until next year.
“We could see fewer bird numbers next year as we look at whether or not they survive what’s going to be a difficult fall, given that plants will dry out earlier and less insects are likely because of the drier time,” he said. “Fire is part of drought as well, so we’ll have to see how that plays out.”