desert fire

Little remains of sagebrush and other plant life in the high desert west of the Red Road in Fremont and Clark counties. What appeared from a distant to be plumes of smoke were actually soot devils twirling black ash in the wind.

It took a fire caused by a few ill-timed lightning strikes a few days to char to a crisp almost 100,000 acres of sagebrush and grass-covered desert in Fremont, Clark and Jefferson counties.

But it will take Mother Nature and some human help years to fully restore the critical winter wildlife range.

The Grassy Ridge fire started about 15 miles northwest of St. Anthony during an afternoon thunderstorm July 26. For firefighters it would be a hot, harrowing week, with evacuations ordered for the town of Dubois and two main road closures.

With containment Aug. 1, the fire drama was done. But for land and wildlife managers the work is just beginning to restore the blackened 100-square-mile area.

It only takes a short drive along the Red Road in Fremont and Clark counties to see what land and wildlife managers are up against. For many miles the only things one can see are the blackened branches of sagebrush and the dark gray ash on the ground.

“We hate it,” said Curtis Hendricks, a wildlife manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game in Idaho Falls.

The fire burned habitat for sage grouse and other upland game birds, as well as winter range for elk and moose.

Hunting seasons have started for some of those species, but Fish and Game has taken what Hendricks calls a conservative approach and has no plans to limit big game hunts in the area.

Big game hunts will proceed, with the last controlled hunts ending Nov. 30, likely before many elk arrive in the winter range that’s now burned.

Even before the fire the agency had considered limiting the sage grouse hunt on the desert east of Interstate 15. After the fire, it announced the area will be closed for sage grouse hunting this year.

Concerning the big game hunt, Hendricks said, “We have had the conversation internally, and we are aware, if we get two feet of snow, we might have to seek an emergency closure.”

Deer winter range is mostly south of the fire scar area, he said. The hope is for a fall green-up and a winter that’s not too harsh.

“We are not planning on feeding elk,” Hendricks said. “That’s our last option, but we will have a contingency plan in case elk begin eating into farming areas or are a safety issue crossing the Interstate.”

About 4,000 elk are estimated to make up the whole Island Park population with about 2,800 of those wintering within the fire scar. “Elk are very adaptable,” he said. “It’s been strange over time. We’ve seen elk moving farther south and west.”

Hendricks has been with the agency for 19 years.

Moose also will be affected by the fire, but Hendricks said he doesn't know how many of the 400-500 population herd would be directly hurt. They are more scattered than the elk herds.

Long range, “the big worry is when it will come back,” Hendricks said of the wildlife habitat considered some of the most critical in Idaho.

The responsibility for drawing up plans for restoration and rehabilitation falls on the Bureau of Land Management, and Ben Dyer, a fire ecologist, said rehab plans already have been submitted for review.

“For the most part, the area was already in good ecological condition with the exception of one area of concern in the lower elevation,” Dyer said.

The area, in the southwestern portion of the fire scar, has sandy, poor soil and will take longer to recover. It will get some aerial reseeding of grasses with deep, running roots and sage brush to try to stabilize the soils.

“Because the rest is mountain big sage, we’re going to take a hands-off approach and monitor it for progress, maybe with some chemical treatment on cheatgrass,” Dyer said. Some noxious weed treatment also may need to done.

Sagebrush, depending on the variety and weather, can take as few as 15 years (the mountain big sage) and as many as 100 years (Wyoming sage) to fully recover.

Farther to the south in the Tex Creek area near Idaho Falls, a fire that many feared could destroy elk habitat for years has recovered surprisingly well. “The plan in place at Tex Creek is working,” Dyer said. “It’s amazing how well it’s recovering.”

Dyer acknowledges the same force that started the fire, Mother Nature, may be the determining factor in how fast the Grassy Ridge Fire scar recovers.

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