Holy smokes!

Ferguson Fire, Sierra National forest, California, 2018 Courtesy USDA Forest Service: Kari Greer, Photographer
Ferguson Fire, Sierra National forest, California, 2018
Courtesy USDA Forest Service: Kari Greer, Photographer
Holy smokes! Once again, our summer has become a smoke filled world we’re warned against breathing. I often wonder how our feathered friends are weathering the pall.

About a year ago, a mass die-off of song birds was witnessed over parts of the southwest tentatively attributed to the historic wildfires across California, Oregon and Washington, which
may have forced birds to rush their migration. But scientists do not know for sure – in part because nobody knows precisely how wildfire smoke affects birds. With increasing changes to
climate and rising temperatures, we do not have enough time to collect the data – things are changing faster than we can keep up with.

Enter eBird, a popular app for logging bird sightings. This platform, and the citizen birdwatchers who populate them, have become a critical tool for scientists trying to unravel the mysteries at the intersection of birds, wildfires and climate change. Researchers are increasingly relying on data collected by citizen scientists and birdwatchers to better understand the effects of climate change, including intensifying wildfire. The eBird app was created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology alongside the National Audubon society, to crowdsource data on the locations and numbers of bird populations globally.

A leading theory behind the south-west die-off is that widespread smoke pollution may have forced birds to start migration sooner than expected. Most of the birds seen dying were migratory. Migration had just started and they were trying to flee the smoke-filled areas and may have starved to death without an opportunity to add extra nutrients for their epic flights. Beyond the effects of smoke on migration patterns, the rise of megafires is also drawing unprecedented attention to the effects smoke may have on a bird’s delicate breathing. Birds and their lungs are certainly affected by smoke. Most of us have heard the phrase “canary in a coalmine”, which comes from the fact that birds are particularly sensitive to toxins in the air. The sensitivity could have something to do with birds’ unique respiratory system. While humans and other mammals use their diaphragm to inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, birds possess a far more
efficient system, essentially inhaling and exhaling at the same time. This allows them to get enough oxygen to fuel near-constant activity and to breathe at much higher altitudes than
mammals.

To do this, birds have tube-like structures called parabronchi, similar to human alveoli in the lungs, which are covered with sacs and capillaries for gas exchange. And as in humans, smoke damage can burst those bubbles, creating less surface area for gas exchange making it more difficult to breathe.

We can all help by joining eBird and reducing our heat trapping emissions. Go to our Bridgerland Audubon website for more information.

Jack Greene for BAS and I’m wild about Utah, but not its smoke!

Credits:

Nest Picture: Courtesy US FWS, Steve Maslowski, Photographer
Audio: Courtesy and Copyright Kevin Colver, https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/collections/special-collections/kevin-colver
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon, https://bridgelandaudubon.org/
Additional Reading: Lyle W Bingham, Webmaster, Bridgerland Audubon, https://bridgelandaudubon.org/

Additional Reading:

Jack Greene’s Postings on Wild About Utah, https://wildaboututah.org/author/jack/

eBird, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University, https://ebird.org/home

Hellstern, Ron, Wildfires, Wild About Utah, Oct 8, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/wildfires/

Boling, Josh, Fire, Wild About Utah, Aug 13, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/fire/

Strand, Holly, Investigating the Causes of Wildfires, Wild About Utah, Aug 15, 2013, https://wildaboututah.org/investigating-the-causes-of-wildfires/

Mack, Eric, California Wildfire Smoke Could Explain Thousands Of Dead Birds In The Southwest, Forbes, https://wildaboututah.org/investigating-the-causes-of-wildfires/

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

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

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