TUOLUMNE CITY — While the Rim fire still rages, a feel-good story rises from the embers and ashes in its wake.
Three years ago, Nathan Graveline began following the deer herd in the Jawbone range of the Stanislaus National Forest, east of Groveland and south of Tuolumne City, and all the way into Mariposa County.
Graveline is a California Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist. He; his boss and project leader, senior wildlife biologist Greg Gerstenberg; and Ron Anderson of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services have trapped or tranquilized roughly 150 deer in that time, including 49 fawns during the winter of 2012-13.
They equip the deer with transmitters high-tech GPS gadgetry on the does and lightweight, very-high-frequency ear tags on the fawns to better understand seasonal movement, the mortality rate among fawns and why some are losing their hair.
Initially, Graveline and the others thought the culprits might be the African blue louse or the fallow deer louse, neither native to the Sierra. The biologists haven't figured out how they got there. Even so, they might not be causing the hair loss, Graveline said.
"It could be a mineral deficiency," Graveline said.
The most pressing issue over the past 13 days, though, has been pretty hair-razing in its own right: the Rim fire.
Destined to be one of the state's five worst wildfires on record, the Rim has devastated homes, historic cabins, summer camps and deer habitat. It's an equal-opportunity destroyer.
While only the more advanced GPS devices hanging around the adult does' necks pinpoint the bearer's precise location three times daily, the less powerful VHF ear tags send signals strong enough to confirm the younger deer still are alive and indicate the general area. If a deer stays in one spot for more than six hours, it is presumed dead.
Here's the intriguing and uplifting part: Of the 49 fawns fitted ear tags last winter, 40 of them are alive. Of the nine that didn't make it, all perished before the fire not as its victims. They died by the claws and jaws of mountain lions, their chief nemeses, or from other causes.
The rest have checked in electronically, so to speak.
"I can't say I wasn't surprised," Graveline said. "In those particular areas, it burned intensively. One was on the Meyers Ranch (which saw its 127-year-old cabin destroyed), another up around Cherry Oil and 3N01 (forest service roads). Another, I didn't get a location. It probably moved down into the Cherry (River Canyon)."
These deer must have faced a fury akin to the wildfire scene in "Bambi," except the Stanislaus herd is real not animated.
Firefighters, ranchers and bulldozer crews saw embers blow over their heads and ignite new blazes a mile or so away from the Rim fire's main body of flames. Animals, including range cattle, deer and other critters, weren't exempt.
"How fast (the fire) moved and how much land it consumed ," Graveline said. "For some of them, that's their entire life's range. There are roughly 10 that winter and summer in that particular range. Some are resident, staying around the Meyers Ranch, some toward Cherry Lake and Cottonwood Meadow. The majority went up into the wilderness."
The biggest loss for the deer, he said, involves oak trees. Acorns are a primary food source for the deer. The oaks also took a hit in the 1987 Stanislaus Complex and 1996 Rogge fires.
"They were just starting to produce acorns again," he said.
Now the deer project will take on a new element.
"We'll have the chance to study how animals respond to fire," Graveline said.
Indeed, the deer that spend summer at the higher elevations tend to migrate west, where it is warmer and snow doesn't cover their food supplies.
"When they start moving down to the burn, will they walk through it?" he wonders. "Will they try to go where they normally go or keep on walking through it? That's data I've never seen published anywhere."
And data he'll be able to compile this winter because they survived to supply it.
A feel-good story, rising from the Rim fire embers and ashes.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.