From Flood to Fire, Utah’s evolving role in mending rangelands

From Flood to Fire, Utah’s evolving role in mending rangelands: Click for a larger view of , Utah.  Courtesy and Copyright 2012 Jim Cane, Photographer
Blue flowers of wild flax
years after seeding
of Devil’s Playground.
Courtesy & Copyright 2012
Jim Cane, Photographer

From Flood to Fire, Utah’s evolving role in mending rangelands: Click for a larger view of Native grasses established two years after seeding Scooby Fire., Utah.  Courtesy and Copyright 2012 Jim Cane, PhotographerNative grasses established
two years after
seeding Scooby Fire.
Courtesy & Copyright 2012
Jim Cane, Photographer

From Flood to Fire, Utah’s evolving role in mending rangelands: Click for a larger view of , Utah.  Courtesy and Copyright 2012 Jim Cane, PhotographerNative sweetvetch farmed
for seed production.
Courtesy & Copyright 2012
Jim Cane, Photographer

Restoring degraded plant communities has a long history on Utah’s public lands. The problem began with the transcontinental railroad, which enabled transport of livestock from Western rangelands to Eastern cities. By the late 1800s, vast flocks of ravenous sheep roved Utah’s unregulated wildlands. Montane summer pastures were stripped bare, so snow melt and summer rainfall washed across the ground unchecked, carving deep gullies. Downstream settlements, such as Logan and Manti, incurred ruinous floods and mud flows. Teddy Roosevelt responded to local pleas for federal control by designating our first national forests in Utah.

Soon thereafter, the fledgling Forest Service created the Great Basin Research Station east of Ephraim Utah. It was charged with discovering the cause of the floods. Within two years, large grazing exclosures were built in nearby mountain meadows by the Agency’s first range ecologist, Arthur Sampson. His research quickly linked overgrazing with denuded meadows, eroding soil and the floods. By 1914, Sampson advocated for rest rotational grazing. To then restore the impacted plant communities, there followed a landmark program at the Station to evaluate plants that could revegetate the degraded watersheds, and later, restore big-game winter range. Led by Perry Plummer, the Station evaluated the performance of 1000 species of shrubs, grasses and wildflowers, some tested in most of Utah’s plant communities. Methods to better collect, store, plant and germinate seeds underpinned the restoration of plant communities that, along with the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act, ended Utah’s frequent canyon floods.

That public research continues with the Great Basin Native Seed Selection and Increase Project. Today’s goal is to restore plant communities after rangeland fire, stalling and eventually reversing the invasion of flammable exotic grasses and weeds in the Intermountain West. Dedicated warehouses in Ephraim, Ely and Boise can store up to 3 million pounds of seed, a testimony to further progress in farming and collecting desirable seed. The seed is spread by aircraft over rocky places, while on gentler slopes, versatile rangeland seeders can place each kind of seed at the right depth, from tiny sagebrush to big grass seeds, all in a single pass over uneven ground. For every planting that takes hold, another weedy legacy of hundred-year-old overgrazing is finally repaired.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

Credits:

Images: Courtesy & Copyright Jim Cane
Text: Jim Cane, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

http://wildfiretoday.com/page/2/

http://www.fs.fed.us/rm/boise/research/shrub/greatbasin.shtml

http://www.fs.fed.us/rm/boise/research/shrub/projects/plant_guides.html

Reseeding the West After Fire

Reseeding the West After Fire
Soil bared by fire with
furrows left by new seeding.
Devil’s Playground Fire, Box Elder Co.
Courtesy & Copyright 2012
Nancy Shaw, Photographer

Reseeding the West After FireBlue flowers of wild flax
years after seeding
of Devil’s Playground.
Courtesy & Copyright 2012
Jim Cane, Photographer

Reseeding the West After FireSeed being planted after fire
using a rangeland drill.
Scooby Fire, Box Elder Co.
Courtesy & Copyright 2012
Nancy Shaw, Photographer

Reseeding the West After FireNative grasses established
two years after
seeding Scooby Fire.
Courtesy & Copyright 2012
Jim Cane, Photographer

Native sweetvetch farmed
for seed production.
Courtesy & Copyright 2012
Jim Cane, Photographer

Palmer penstemon farmed
for seed production.
Courtesy & Copyright 2012
Bob Hammon, Photographer

More than 7 million acres burned this summer across the western United States. It’s the biggest fire year since 2007. In Utah, wildfires blazed across 450,000 acres, as much land as the urbanized Wasatch front. Most of these fires scorched basin and foothill habitats dominated by sagebrush or juniper forests. After a year or two, the blackened land will turn green. But shrubs and trees in these basin habitats are frequently killed by fire. Where these native plant communities naturally recover, it’s because perennial wildflowers and grasses resprout, and, like the shrubs, germinate their seeds. However, overgrazing a century ago impoverished many western rangelands. Aggressive weeds from Europe and Asia could then invade, such as tumblemustard, Russian thistle, and red brome or cheatgrass. These weeds outcompete our natives, multiplying with each fire cycle to eventually carpet the landscape.

To stem this tide of weed invasion after fire, land managers assist plant community recovery by planting mixtures of shrub, grass and wildflower seed. The shrub seed is mostly native, harvested from the wild by private seed collectors. The tiny seeds of several kinds of sagebrush prevail, often mixed with fourwing saltbush, shadscale, or bitterbrush.

The grasses are largely farmed by specialty growers. In past decades, these were mostly tough, competitive grasses from the Asian steppe, notably crested and tall wheatgrasses, and Russian wildrye. These practical, affordable grasses stand up to cheatgrass, but they also impede the return of the native flora. Today, half the grass seed applied after Great Basin fires includes natives, such as Sandberg bluegrass, squirreltail, Indian ricegrass, and bluebunch wheatgrass.

Use of wildflower seed has lagged. It’s challenging to farm yet costly to wild harvest. Today, a handful of innovative farmers are growing native wildflowers for seed, such as yarrow, Lewis flax, sweetvetch, two prairie-clovers, a milkvetch, and several penstemons. How much seed is needed? After the big fire year of 2007, four thousand tons of shrub, grass and wildflower seed were planted in the American West!

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

Credits:

Images: Courtesy & Copyright Nancy Shaw
            Courtesy & Copyright Bob Hammon and
            Courtesy & Copyright Jim Cane
Text: Jim Cane, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

http://wildfiretoday.com/page/2/

http://www.fs.fed.us/rm/boise/research
/shrub/greatbasin.shtml

http://www.fs.fed.us/rm/boise/research/shrub
/projects/plant_guides.html

Wildfires in Utah

Wildfires in Utah: Click to view larger image of Fireweed growing in burned area, Photo Courtesy US FWS, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Fireweed Grows in Burned Area
Photo Courtesy
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Hi, this is Mark Larese-Casanova from the Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.

Prior to settlement by the pioneers at the end of the 19th century, wildfires were relatively common throughout the mountains of Utah. Wildfires were a result of natural disturbance, such as lightning strikes, but many were purposely set by Native Americans. Wildfires restarted the cycle of forest succession and also created a mosaic of plant communities across the landscape.

Although Utah’s changing climate has had a major influence, human factors have considerably altered the natural fire regime over the past 150 years. Fire frequency slowly declined prior to settlement by the pioneers due to a period of global cooling; however, fire activity increased considerably to its highest point during the settlement period between 1856 and 1909. This increase was linked to the dramatic growth in human population and activity, which lead to increased surface fuel from extensive timber harvesting, and inevitably to more ignition sources for more frequent fires.

Between 1910 and 1990, there was a dramatic decline in wildfires throughout Utah, despite the gradual increase in global temperatures. This was due to intensive livestock grazing, habitat fragmentation as a result of development, agricultural expansion, and effective fire suppression. As a result, shade-intolerant trees that relied on fire for regeneration, such as aspen and lodgepole pine, were often replaced by long-lived, shade-tolerant trees, such as spruce and fir. In general, this resulted in a gradual decline in diversity of plant communities.

As a result, more homogenous forests that are densely populated with trees and accumulated fuels are more susceptible to intense fires that burn hotter and are more difficult to control. In 2007, Utah had a record-setting fire season that burned over 629,000 acres, including the 363,000-acre Milford Flat Fire. We’re halfway through the fire season this year, and approximately 400,000 acres have burned in Utah, costing over $47,000,000 to control. Additionally, wildfires that have burned about three-quarters of the acreage this year were classified as large in size. It seems that increased temperatures, decreased snowpack, and a century of land use and management has resulted in a dangerous wildfire situation in Utah and much of the West. It will take some creative management strategies, such as sustainable timber harvesting or prescribed fires, to tackle this ongoing issue if we want to limit the risk and cost of larger and more frequent wildfires.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Mark Larese-Casanova.

Credits:

Images: Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, images.fws.gov

Text:     Mark Larese-Casanova, Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.
Additional Reading:

Madany, M. H., and N. E. West. (1983). Livestock grazing-fire regime interactions within montane forests of Zion National Park, Utah. Ecology 64:661-667., http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/1937186?uid=3739928&uid=2&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21100946519023

Neugebauer, C. (Jul 15, 2012). Burning through money: the cost of Utah wildfires. Salt Lake Tribune., http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/news/54485976-78/fire-fires-cost-costs.html.csp

Utah Fire Info webpage: http://www.utahfireinfo.gov/

Williams, J., D. Albright, A.A. Hoffmann, A. Eritsov, P.F. Moore, J.C.M. de Morais, M. Leonard, J.S. Miguel-Ayanz, G. Xanthopoulos, P. van Lierop. (2011). Findings and implications from a coarse-scale global assessment of recent mega-fires. 5th International Wildland Fire Conference. Sun City, South Africa., http://www.fao.org/docrep/014/am663e/am663e00.pdf

 

A Modern Day Phoenix

“Phoenix,” an immature Golden Eagle
Aquila chrysaetos
Courtesy Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah (WRCNU.org)

Elk Bath
From a 2000 fire in the
Bitterroot National Forest in Montana

Courtesy Wikimedia &
USDA Forest Service
John McColgan, Photographer

Hi, I’m Holly Strand.

You may have heard about the golden eagle nestling that was badly burned during a recent Utah wildfire. Its nest was totally destroyed, but the little eagle had fallen to the ground and survived. After the fire, he was found by Kent Keller, a volunteer for Utah’s Div. of Natural Resources, who had banded the young eagle a month before. The eagle was dehydrated—his feathers, face, and feet were badly burned. So Keller obtained a permit from wildlife officials to intervene. Now in the care of the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah the eagle is recovering rapidly. Even so, it will take a while for the damaged feathers to be replaced by healthy new ones. Phoenix–as is he was aptly named–won’t learn to fly for at least another year.

With this and other fire-related stories in the news, I‘ve been wondering about the fate of animals caught in wildfires. Scientific observations of animal behavior during fire events are rare. But by conducting post-fire surveys, and comparing results with unburned areas, some researchers have been able to piece together an idea of who survives, who dies and who thrives.

Obviously, faster and more mobile animals have the advantage. Birds can fly away and most mammals can outrun the spreading flames. Spring fires can be disastrous, destroying birds who haven’t fledged –like Phoenix– or mammals who are still too immature to escape. Fortunately, fires are more frequent in mid to late summer when little ones have matured.

If a fire moves through an area quickly, without superheating the ground, dormant animals or those hiding in burrows can survive. The surrounding soil provides plenty of insulation. Soil also protects most soil macrofauna and the pupae of many insects.

Animals that live their lives totally or partially in the water may not suffer at all during a fire. However, smaller bodies of water, such as streams, can quickly heat up fairly quickly. Oxygen loss is a problem as well. And fire-fighting chemicals dumped from the air can end up in water, killing fish, frogs and other animals.

Indirectly, the alteration of habitat by fire can also restructure animal populations. Interestingly, there are quite a lot of animals that benefit from post-fire habitats. For example, the insect population above ground may plummet during a fire, but then increase above pre-fire levels when fresh young plants start to grow back. Burned trees are attractive to certain beetles as breeding sites. An increase in beetles is a windfall for the woodpeckers that devour them. Swallows and flycatchers use burned dead trees as perch sites. They survey from on high and then swoop to catch their insect dinner. Seed eating birds like Clark’s Nutcracker, gobble up conifer seeds when cones open in response to fire.

Among mammals, ground squirrels, pocket gophers and deer mice generally increase after severe fires. Even large herbivores such as pronghorn or deer may benefit from the increased food and nutrition on recent burns. In turn, predators of these creatures enjoy a bumper crop as well.

For images of Phoenix the recovering golden eagle and a link to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah go to www.wildaboututah.org.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Holly Strand.

Credits:

Images: Courtesy Wikimedia, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, Gavin Keefe Schaefer and Dave Menke, US FWS images.fws.gov
Text: Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading:


Baker, William L. 2009. Fire ecology in Rocky Mountain Landscapes. Washington, DC: Island Press.http://islandpress.org/ip/books/book/islandpress/F/bo7019409.html

Bradley, Anne F.; Noste, Nonan V.; Fischer, William C. 1992. Fire ecology of forests and woodlands in Utah. Gen. Tech. Rep. INT-287. Ogden, UT: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Intermountain Research Station. http://www.fs.fed.us/rm/pubs_int/int_gtr287.pdf

Hutto, RL. 1995. Composition of bird communities following stand-replacement fires in northern Rocky-Mountain (USA) conifer forests in Conservation Biology Volume: 9 Issue: 5 Pages: 1041-1058 http://www.fsl.orst.edu/ltep/Biscuit/Biscuit_files/Refs/Hulto%20CB1995%20fire%20birds.pdf

Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah http://wrcnu.org/