A mere two weeks ago during the Oklahoma City Zoo’s annual Groundhog Day event, Will and Wiley, our guessing grizzlies, predicted an early spring. While there are still several weeks to gauge the accuracy of the bear’s forecasting abilities, it is hard to fathom spring conditions forthcoming as we are currently experiencing heavy snow, gusting winds and record lows temperatures.
This winter season arrived early in Oklahoma with a rare ice storm occurring in late October 2020. This unseasonable weather event wreaked havoc across the state, including the Zoo due to a tree canopy still full of leaves and in the midst of fall color. This historical occurrence, was the first time the National Weather Service had issued an ice storm warning for Oklahoma during the month of October. After three days of freezing rain, almost 400,000 Oklahomans were without power and our state’s trees had been significantly damaged due to the weight of ice and frozen leaves breaking branches. At the Zoo, an immediate damage assessment was implemented as the ice storm began to wind down.
Thankfully there was no major damage to any of the Zoo’s animal habitats and only minimal damage to some of the park’s boardwalks, decks and fences. The greatest impact from the ice storm was certainly to the Zoo’s tree canopy. Only the very protected understory trees and shrubs endured the storm with little to no damage. Zoo-wide cleanup efforts began immediately and thanks to an incredible team effort the park was able to re-open in time for the last weekend of the Zoo’s annual Halloween event, Haunt the Zoo. This recovery effort was a large undertaking that included moving fallen tree branches and loading them onto Zoo vehicles to be transported to the Zoo's compost pile. If possible, vegetation and tree branches were repurposed for animal browse and enrichment.
Of particular interest to many Zoo fans, was the status of our three champion trees, assessed by the Oklahoma Forestry Services. The Arizona Cypress in the water conservation garden had minimal damage, with the Lacebark Elm, located in Children’s Zoo, needing only “here and there” hanging branches removed. Oklahoma's second-largest Burr Oak did lose several large branches but will recover. All three trees are in good shape and will live for many years.
Having seen the impacts of weather events such as ice storms to our trees and shrubs, initial impulses may be to immediately clean and tidy things up as one can. Unfortunately, this often leads to well-meaning efforts in removing, what at first glance may appear to be beyond repair branches or entire trees. Our top priorities are to keep guests, Zoo team members and animals safe, while giving all of the Zoo's beautiful trees a chance to recover from any storm damage ensued. Branches will often rebound when the weight of ice melts. Bent over leaders will straighten. New growth will emerge. Safety first; patience second is always a good motto to follow.
The Zoo’s expert horticulturists will continue to observe and evaluate the Zoo’s tree canopy. Continually finding and removing new hanging and weakened limbs is the expectation for some time. A full recovery of the tree canopy from this years’ winter storms will be counted not in months, but in years and maybe decades. While the tree loss from the October ice storm was around 15, now that we are in the midst of yet another winter storm, that number will likely rise. Hopefully, Will and Wiley will be correct in their predictions and spring is on its way.
- Christopher B. Hoffman, Director of Botanical Gardens