When Tropical Storm Hilary drenched the town of Big Bear and nearby communities, some mountain dwellers were trapped by flash floods, debris flows and washed out roadways.
But not local residents Jackie and Shadow.
The famous bald eagles who live near Big Bear Lake quickly took cover, roosting high in the trees, finding protection from the storm’s punch. Eagle watcher Sandy Steers said the pair “are doing just fine” on Tuesday, Aug. 22.
Biologists, conservancies, bird watchers and trail hikers concluded that most urban wildlife found shelter from the unprecedented summer storm that deluged Southern California from Saturday night, Aug. 19 through Monday, Aug. 21, while some were checking on the health of fish and amphibians in local streams.
“I don’t think it has hurt the wildlife because I think they are better able, adapting to the changes in our environment,” said Mark Stanley, executive officer of the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy on Wednesday, Aug. 23. “They will last longer than us human beings.”
Experts point out the bigger threats to wildlife are caused by humans, not nature, from global climate change due to burning of fossil fuels bringing more intense wildfires and hotter oceans, to development gobbling up habitat once relied on for foraging and mating, to motorists crashing into animals on freeways.
The question posed after the storm focuses on the health of the largest mammals living in the Santa Monica Mountains, the region’s urban mountain lions and bobcats.
“The truth is, they are used to this kind of (weather) systems where you have a lot of rain certain times and no rain at other times. They were probably not affected significantly,” said Seth Riley, wildlife ecologist and branch chief for wildlife for the National Park Service. The NPS has been studying urban mountain lions in Los Angeles and Ventura counties for 21 years.
Black bears, more common in the Angeles National Forest and foothill communities of the San Gabriel Valley, will go back into their dens to wait out storms, said Jamie Uyehara, a U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist and resources and planning officer at the Angeles National Forest.
“Deer will go underneath the chaparral. Those areas can stay fairly dry,” Uyehara added.
While Riley, as well as Uyehara, will assess wildlife populations in the next several weeks and compare data with pre-Hilary counts, their focus will be on the streams and creeks in mountains, canyons and foothills.
When it rains hard, natural areas denuded by wildfires transform into mud and debris, flowing into streams and natural pools used by fish and frogs for spawning. Pools can be clogged with sediment or disappear, Uyehara said.
“When you have flash flooding, a big group of animals live in streams. All of a sudden you get a huge pulse of water that can affect these amphibians,” Riley said. He added that adult mountain lions avoid rushing streams. But one puma kitten drowned in a flash flood a few years ago, he said.
Mostly, Riley and Uyehara worried about efforts to re-introduce the mountain yellow-legged frogs, nurtured into adulthood at the Los Angeles Zoo and then returned to the Santa Monica Mountains, Simi Hills and Angeles National Forest, something both scientists will be checking on soon. “Having nice, big pools is critical. A lot of water at one time is not good,” Riley said.
The timing of the tropical storm is a positive since vulnerable tadpoles are more often present in March and April, he said.
Uyehara will be checking on the red-legged and yellow-legged frog populations. Both are endangered species. She’s also checking in on streams where the unarmored threespine stickleback fish are struggling for survival.
“We will be trying to make sure the habitat is still viable,” she said.
Mud flows are still a threat from the 2020 Bobcat Fire that burned in the western Angeles National Forest, she said. She will examine the streams inhabited by the unarmored threespine stickleback fish near the recent Agua fire near Soledad Canyon Road and the 14 Freeway.
She said these fish, listed as federally endangered, love cold, clear mountain streams. They are often found in the northwestern part of the Angeles, near Santa Clarita.
At the remnant of the St. Francis Dam, the top portion is filled with water, mud and red-legged frogs, which also inhabit San Francisquito Creek, said Dianne Hellrigel, executive director of the Community Hiking Club in Santa Clarita and the St. Francis Dam National Memorial Foundation. The St. Francis Dam collapsed on March 12, 1928, killing close to 500 people in the resulting flood.
During the recent tropical storm, the frogs hid safely in the mud, she said. “They have plenty of places to hide. They are doing great; they love the habitat.”
However, they can’t escape people stepping on them or scooping them up and placing them in paper cups to take home, she said.
Some of the benefits of a late summer storm is that it tamps down the wildfire threat by providing more water and more moisture in the plants and soil, Uyehara said.
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Hiker David Talavera, who on Wednesday navigated the trail along the San Gabriel River at River Wilderness park north of Azusa on his electric, single-wheeled skateboard, talked about the benefits of the tropical storm from a layman’s point of view.
“It’s a good feeling we have water,” he said. “You can hear it and you can feel it. The sound of water always running is nice,” he said.
“It is like the Earth got baptized,” said Shelly Hefferon of Azusa, who was also walking the river trail, avoiding puddles and taking in the after-rains scent in the air.
The extra rain also prompts more green vegetation, which makes for more food for deer, Riley said. More and fattened deer also make for better dinners for mountain lions.
But while monsoonal storms in summer are common in the desert and in some parts of the Angeles, a tropical storm in summer along the coast is unusual, said Dan Silver, executive director of the Endangered Habitats League in Los Angeles.
“It is interesting to get unseasonable rain and it’s uncommon along the coastal areas,” Silver said. “The effects will vary from place to place.”