A fire that burned through much of Arizona’s Oak Creek Canyon last summer may have negative impacts on the area’s native narrow-headed gar
A fire that burned through much of Arizona’s Oak Creek Canyon last summer may have negative impacts on the area’s native narrow-headed garter snake (Thamnophis rufipunctatus) population, according to scientists who are studying the effects the Slide Fire has had on Oak Creek fish breeding areas and the snake’s favorite hunting grounds.
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Prior to the Slide Fire, the largest and densest population of the threatened snake could be found in the canyon in Oak Creek, which is also home to the famous tourist spot Slide Rock. Researchers are not sure if that is now the case as ash and debris from the fire flowed into the water and changed the oxygen levels, potentially killing off aquatic insects and other animals that are an integral part of the food chain. The resulting silt also covered the rocks where fish lay their eggs and where the snakes hunt. The narrow-headed garter snake is primarily a fish eater, with native and introduced trout a main staple, as well as dace and chubs. It is these fish stocks that may have been decimated by the fire, which in turn may have resulted in the loss of the snake.
"Unfortunately, the species' range is corresponding exactly to where these huge fires, and the corresponding flooding, are happening," Erika Nowak, Northern Arizona University associate research professor told the Arizona Daily Sun. Nowak has experience with the demise of the narrow-headed garter snake due to fire in other areas in which they occurred. A 2012 fire in New Mexico called the Whitewater-Baldy Fire burned through areas of the Gila National Forest, and that fire also was detrimental to the native population of narrow-headed garter snakes. That population, which was already struggling prior to the fire, was declared extirpated from the area.
Nowak and a team of researchers will work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to captive breed 11 snakes from Oak Creek in an effort to restore the local populations if they don’t successfully restore themselves. Nowak hopes to create an enclosure at the University that will mimic the snake’s natural habitat and enable them to breed in captivity. The offspring will eventually be released back into Oak Creek.