Drought stresses wildlife

The adaptability of wildlife in Arizona is being rigorously tested by a four-year drought.

"Most animals adapt to drought," said Jeff Pebworth, wildlife program manager for Region III of the Arizona Department of Game and Fish.

"It's part of the natural cycle.

"It's not like living in an area of high rainfall and then going into drought.

We have natural fluctuations here from year to year and when it becomes critical is when we have years of extended drought back-to-back."

But an exceptionally dry winter and spring has resulted in fewer flowering plants.

That means mean less food for prey species, and, in turn, predators.

"There is less forage being produced and what forage is available is less nutritious," Pebworth said.

"Deer and pronghorn antelope usually eat forbs, a broadleaf plant, but there's little of it out there now," he said.

"They may have to eat grass, which is less nutritious for them.

"They need more nutritious plants in the spring when incubating and feeding their young, so the end result is they have fewer fawns and those fawns born are less able to survive."

Pebworth cited another factor affecting pronghorn antelope.

Pronghorn in the Prescott Valley are used to moving around their range to find forage.

But that area is now so urbanized the antelope are being struck on roadways with 39 pronghorn deaths in the last few months, he said.

Quail also are expected to decrease this year, according to an Associated Press story.

It stated mature quail pairs normally have broods of 12-15 chicks each spring.

But a lack of the wildflowers needed by hens might keep clutches this year to six to eight chicks.

Quail populations fluctuate dramatically from year to year based on a number of factors, Pebworth said.

"There can be a host of things such as the weather," he said.

"How much rainfall will there be and when will it come?

"If you get a cold rain when quail chicks are small, they may not survive.

The young chicks also feed on insects, whose numbers fluctuate depending on forage."

The desert tortoise is another creature that depends on vegetation made green by precipitation or winter runoff.

The tortoise also might not follow normal reproductive cycles during drought.

A good monsoon this summer would help plants green up and be welcomed, Pebworth said.

"Winter rain is very critical and we didn't get much," he said.

"The monsoon may come too late in the year for the young, but it will help the adult animals survive."

The game and fish department periodically counts prey animals.

Pebworth said surveys of antelope are scheduled next month.

Deer and bighorn sheep will be counted later in the year.

Predators like mountain lions are harder to locate, so attempts are not made to count their numbers, he said.

"Anytime you have drought conditions where there is less nutritious forage for animals and less cover for wildlife you create a situation where they are more vulnerable to predation," Pebworth said.

"Part of that is the checks and balance system.

If you have stressed animals it's easier for predators right now, but at some point in the future with less (prey) animals available it's going to hurt the predators, too."

As the summer approaches and the drought continues, more conflicts between people and wildlife are likely.

"The animals move right into (residential) neighborhoods looking for forage," he said.

"We've had javelina complaints as they come with pronghorn into backyards.

Bear nuisance complaints also will probably increase."