Huge wildfires prompt emergency hunt of wildlife in Nevada; Montana blaze growing larger

Monday, September 4th 2006, 6:24 am
By: News On 6

RENO, Nev. (AP) _ A string of wildfires that scorched hundreds of square miles of prime habitat has prompted an emergency antelope hunt and relocation of unprecedented scope in Nevada, state officials said.

Nevada Department of Wildlife officials authorized a special hunt of 200 antelope and the relocation of up to 350 others after determining the blackened rangeland is unable to support the herd of more than 1,000 animals northwest of Elko, about 290 miles east of Reno.

The department has never before been forced to conduct an emergency hunt and relocation of such magnitude, spokesman Chris Healy said.

Biologists fear there would be a major die-off this winter if the antelope herd is not thinned.

``The fires have been a disaster for wildlife. It's an absolute crisis,'' Healy said Sunday. ``We've burned so much of the landscape that these animals just don't have a chance.''

Antelope and mule deer, which are also under consideration for a hunt, depend on brush and grasses as a food source. Deer also rely on sagebrush for shelter.

The recent wildfires have destroyed more than half of the area's critical antelope winter range, biologists said.

Nevada ranks second nationwide behind only Texas in the amount of land charred by wildfires this year _ 1.13 million acres, or 1,777 square miles, according to the National Interagency Fire Council.

Plans call for a two-week hunt beginning Sept. 18. Wildlife officials said they then plan to capture from 100 to 350 antelope in the area and release them in unburned parts of the state.

Plans also call for an aggressive reseeding effort in the area.

Meanwhile, in Montana, the western edge of a 180,000-acre blaze _ or more than 281 square miles _ that has burned 26 homes was growing. Wind pushed the nearly two-week-old fire to higher elevations and in some cases it leaped up to 100 yards, creating smaller fires.

Evacuation orders were issued for homes in the Susie Creek area south of Big Timber, said Gwen Shaffer, a fire information officer.

The south-central Montana fire is classified as the nation's No. 1 firefighting priority, information officer Joan Dickerson said. The classification reflects risk to people and property, and the potential for a fire's growth, among other factors.