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

Forero, Leslie, Plants Surviving Cheatgrass Invasion May Improve Restoration Chances, Study Shows, UPR Utah Public Radio, Feb 26, 2018 https://www.upr.org/post/plants-surviving-cheatgrass-invasion-may-improve-restoration-chances-study-shows

Cheatgrass

Click to view an article about cheatgrass, Photo Photo Courtesy NPS, Photographer Tom Heutte, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org
Cheatgrass
Photo Courtesy NPS, Photographer:
Tom Heutte, USDA Forest Service,
Bugwood.org

Click to view an article about cheatgrass, Photo Courtesy NPS, Neal Herbert, PhotographerA grassland inundated by cheatgrass
Photo Courtesy NPS
Neal Herbert, Photographer

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

It’s difficult to visit a landscape in the West without encountering cheatgrass. While cheatgrass’ small stature might make it hard to notice, it’s impossible to forget its sharp, spiny seeds. One hike through a cheatgrass meadow can render a good pair of socks unsalvageable.

Although cheatgrass, a nonnative grass scientifically known as Bromus tectorum, is an annual grass- germinating, growing, producing seeds, and dying each year- it is particularly effective at colonizing disturbed areas because it grows and produces seeds much earlier in the spring than many perennial native grasses. Cheatgrass monopolizes water and nutrients by germinating and establishing itself during the previous fall and winter, when many native plants have become dormant. Over time, “cheat grass” has become the dominant ground cover in many of Utah’s sagebrush ecosystems.

The dense, dry, fine stalks of cheatgrass, which sets seeds and dries out by June, are particularly flammable fuel for wildfires. Fire roars through the carpet-like cover of cheatgrass, and wildfires are now at least twice as frequent as they were in the 1800’s. This has caused a loss of sagebrush habitat that is particularly important to a wide diversity of wildlife. More frequent fires create an even greater challenge for rare species such as the black-footed ferret and desert tortoise to survive. Native grasses are slower to recover from fire, and cheatgrass is particularly effective at recolonizing burned areas. Utah State University researchers Dr. Peter Adler and Aldo Compagnoni have found that reduced snowpack and warmer temperatures promote the growth of cheatgrass, which could potentially increase its distribution and fire risk into previously colder areas of Utah.

Researchers and managers are continually working to find ways to control cheatgrass in Utah. Effective control usually involves a combination of mechanical pulling or tilling, grazing, burning, spraying with a chemical herbicide, and replanting with native grasses. USU researchers Dr Eugene Schupp and his former graduate student Jan Summerhays found that applying a pre-emergent herbicide to prevent the germination of cheatgrass seeds, as well as temporarily limiting Nitrogen in the soil, gave native grasses and perennials a better chance of establishing. When faced with such a large management problem in Utah and throughout the West, we can use all of the helpful tools we can get.

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

Credits:

Images: Courtesy NPS, Neal Herbert Photographers
and NPS, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org, Tom Heutte Photographer
Text: Mark Larese-Casanova, Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.

Additional Reading:

Beck, George. Cheat grass and Wildfire. Fact Sheet No. 6.310. Colorado State University Extension. http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/natres/06310.html

Range Plants of Utah. USU Extension, Utah State University, https://extension.usu.edu/rangeplants/grasses-and-grasslikes/cheatgrass

Fairchild, John. Cheat grass: threatening homes, stealing rangelands. Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. http://wildlife.utah.gov/watersheds/links/cheatgrass.php

Opsahl, Kevin. USU study: Climate shift could trigger Cheat Grass. Herald Journal . October 21, 2012. http://news.hjnews.com/allaccess/article_f1436aee-1a3c-11e2-935a-0019bb2963f4.html

Forero, Leslie, Plants Surviving Cheat Grass Invasion May Improve Restoration Chances, Study Shows, UPR Utah Public Radio, Feb 26, 2018 https://www.upr.org/post/plants-surviving-cheatgrass-invasion-may-improve-restoration-chances-study-shows

Cane, James, Reseeding the West After Fire, Wild About Utah, November 29,2012, https://wildaboututah.org/reseeding-the-west-after-fire/

Strand, Holly, American Invasion, Wild About Utah, September 18,2014, https://wildaboututah.org/american-invasion/

Grant, Val, Short-tailed Bird of Perdition-Starlings, Wild About Utah, June 05,2009, https://wildaboututah.org/short-tailed-bird-of-perdition-starlings/

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

Live Worldwide Network for Lightning and Thunderstorms in Real Time, Blitzortung, http://en.blitzortung.org/live_lightning_maps.php?map=30

Cryptobiotic Soil Crusts

Click to view larger image of Cryptobiotic Soil Crust, Photo Courtesy and Copyright Mark Larese-Casanova
Cryptobiotic Soil Crust
Photo Courtesy & Copyright 2009
Mark Larese-Casanova

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

Looking out over a Utah desert, we might see relatively few plants- perhaps some sagebrush, maybe a few junipers or Joshua trees, or even some small wildflowers or cacti. What is less noticeable, though, is the living soil crust that holds this entire landscape together. It’s not just sand, but rather an important and vast partnership between bacteria, lichens, algae, and fungi. These soil crusts are often referred to as ‘cryptobiotic’, which means ‘living in suspended animation’. This is a fitting description, considering that water can be so rare in Utah’s deserts.

Cyanobacteria, which is often called blue-green algae, is the backbone of cryptobiotic soil crust. Vast networks of long, microscopic filaments of cyanobacteria and fungi grow in length when they are wet, and leave behind a casing that literally binds the soil together. So, what might otherwise be loose sand not only is less likely to be washed away by water or blown away by wind, but also is able to hold much more water for plants.

Click to view larger image of Cryptobiotic Soil Crust, Photo Courtesy and Copyright Mark Larese-Casanova
Cryptobiotic Soil Crust
Photo Courtesy & Copyright 2009
Mark Larese-Casanova

Cyanobacteria is also extremely useful to desert landscapes for its ability to take Nitrogen out of the air and make it available to plant roots in the soil. Desert soils typically have relatively low nutrients, so this is especially important to desert plants.

In many Utah deserts, cryptobiotic soil crusts can cover up to 70% of the ground surface. Old soil crust can often look like small mountain ranges with black or white peaks inhabited by lichens or mosses. The little valleys in between the tiny mountains of crust are perfect spots for the seeds of desert plants to grow. Over time, the above ground crust can grow up to ten centimeters, or four inches, thick!

However, cryptobiotic soil crust grows at an alarmingly slow rate of about one millimeter per year. So, any soil crust that is disturbed can take a very long time to recover. Depending on the amount of moisture a desert receives, it can take anywhere between 20 and 250 years for soil crust to grow back.

Next time you’re out in the desert, kneel down and have a close look at the telltale peaks and valleys of cryptobiotic soil crust. If you bring a magnifying glass, you just might be able to see some of the lichens and mosses. Be sure to stay on trail, though, and whatever you do, don’t bust that crust!

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

Credits:

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

US Department of Interior. 2001. Biological Soil Crusts: Ecology and Management. Bureau of Land Management Technical Reference 1730-2., http://www.blm.gov/nstc/library/pdf/CrustManual.pdf
Rosentreter, R., M. Bowker, and J. Belnap. 2007. A Field Guide to Biological Soil Crusts of Western U.S. Drylands. U.S. Government Printing Office, Denver, Colorado., http://www.soilcrust.org/