Following the Mustang Complex and Halstead fire aftermath, many people wondered how our wildlife fared. We may think of fire as devastating to animals, but it is important to remember that wildfire and wildlife have coexisted for millennia. Periodic fire resets the ecological clock on landscapes, stimulating productivity and biodiversity in plant and animal communities.
All wildlife requires food, water, cover and space in the right proportion to survive. On big game spring, summer and fall ranges good nutrition enables mule deer does to raise healthy, well-nourished fawns which are better able to survive the coming winter. Often, fire across these ranges will improve plant nutrition across the landscape and promote healthy mule deer populations and increase fawn production and survival.
However, on sagebrush dominated winter ranges the picture is different. In winter when forage conditions are poor, mule deer depend heavily on stored fat from the previous year to survive the winter. On local winter ranges the most abundant and available forage is sagebrush. It is available in deep snow, and slows the decline in body condition when browsed with other plant species. And as mule deer metabolism slows down in winter and nutrition is of lesser importance, sagebrush provides thermal and hiding cover, two habitat components critical to winter mule deer survival. Therefore, abundant browse, good cover and space provide the type of winter habitat mule deer need to survive Idaho winters.
When fire removes the sagebrush component from an important mule deer winter range the issue to address as wildlife and land managers is, should we intervene and attempt restoration of the range or let nature take its course. After all, fires have been burning mule deer winter ranges for millennia. This was the question raised when the 2012 Mustang fire burned the sagebrush component from an important mule deer and elk winter range near North Fork.
Following consultation between IDFG, the Forest Service and BLM the decision was made to attempt restoration. Why now, primarily because our native plant communities are under threat by invasive plant species such as spotted knapweed, cheatgrass and a variety of introduced forbs. Where invasive species take hold in sagebrush habitats, early intervention is required to restore the native plant communities following fire. Otherwise, they may take many years if ever, to re-establish. Burned mule deer winter ranges which have not re-established to native plant communities are evident all across the state of Idaho. Locally, vast areas of winter range along the Middle Fork of the Salmon River will likely not re-establish to the native plant community due to the persistence of invasive plant species.
Also, most of the mule deer in Game Management Unit 21 winter in this area. Sagebrush restoration efforts will be more effective when applied immediately following fire, rather than in subsequent years, and minimize the short-term adverse impacts to the mule deer population.
Early January, 2013 a cooperative IDFG/Forest Service effort funded an aerial sagebrush seeding project on 1,750 acres of this winter range. But more work is needed. On April 19, 2013, 1,500 sagebrush seedlings will be hand-planted by local agency personnel and volunteers in the Donnelly Gulch area one mile below North Fork. If you would like to help with this effort, please call IFG at 756-2271 or the Salmon Valley Stewardship at 756-1686. By giving Mother Nature a helping hand perhaps we can help restore our important natural resources.
by Greg Painter
March 20, 2013