Post-incineration ecology

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SEELEY LAKE – Seeley Lake District Ranger Quinn Carver stood looking up at the muddy debris that had inundated the Dunham Creek Road in a landslide about three years ago. The scars from the 2017 Rice Ridge fire are etched on the hillside above him. Despite the rows of skeletal trees, the shrubs, perennials, and grasses are green and thriving.

“We quickly mobilized some equipment, but it took about two days to get them up and running,” Carver said. “You could probably get through all that dirt if you had a pair of hip waders.”

The Rice Ridge Fire burned approximately 160,000 acres northeast of Lake Seeley in Lolo National Forest. Areas that burned at high intensity were left bare and dry, prime conditions for a landslide even two years after the fire. In the past three years, the Rice Ridge fire zone has experienced five debris-flow events, two of which occurred near Lodgepole Trailhead.

Ironically, this portion of the forest was supposed to be part of the 61,000-acre Center Horse Restoration Project. The Center Horse project area is approximately 14 miles north of Ovando and includes the North Fork of the Cottonwood and Spring Creek Drainage to the west and the McCabe Creek Drainage to the east. Work included culvert replacement and removal, timber harvesting, and mandatory burning of about 5,000 acres.

Because the original project was modified in 2020 to move the forest forward with forest restoration and maintenance, Lolo National Forest built three new bridges on Dunham Creek Road and enlarged the narrow culverts below with aquatic culverts (AOP). AOP or “fish passage” allows aquatic organisms to move to gain access to habitat.

According to Carver, there are several phases to managing the effects of the Rice Ridge fire.

The first phase is suppression and repair of suppression. This is a set of immediate post-fire actions taken to repair damage and minimize potential soil erosion and firefighting effects. This work is usually done before the fire is fully contained. The work included repairing the hand and dozer fire lines, roads, trails, staging areas, safe zones and drop points used during firefighting operations.

The second phase is the Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER), a team that descends into the landscape to identify risks to critical assets and request funds for protective treatments. Long before the smoke clears, they assess risks such as human life and safety; endangered or threatened wildlife; and cultural and heritage resources.

The phase that the Seeley Lake Ranger District is in right now is recovery and post-fire recovery.

Since the fire, they have completed 80 miles of road maintenance and drainage improvements, including work worth about $1.5 million. They also replaced approximately 50 culverts, placed gensets on Lower Cottonwood Road and completed road surface improvement on Morrell Lookout Road.

Carver said there are both benefits and issues associated with the land post fire. Since the soil in Rice Ridge’s fire line is now fertile, both plants and animals, such as moose, benefit. In contrast, several new problems emerge postfire, such as Douglas fir bark beetle infestations, invasive species and weeds, and the dangers of regrowth in postfire areas.

“It’s getting more and more dangerous,” Carver said. “If you look around, the wind is starting to break some of these trees and we’ve had some pretty strong winds. They start to rot. I would say we are stepping into the window of advising people to exercise caution.”

bark beetle infestation

Fire-damaged trees resulting from wildfires can provide suitable habitats for bark beetles, wood beetles, and other “secondary” beetles. The Douglas-fir bark beetle is the most destructive bark beetle of the Douglas fir in the northern and central Rocky Mountains.

Since the fire, Kurt Wetzstein, manager of the Lolo National Forest forestry and invasive program, said infestations of Doug fir bark beetles have only gotten worse around the Seeley Lake/Ovando area.

“If you have a fire event like this, then it exacerbates endemic populations into epidemic populations,” Wetzstein said. “I imagine you’re probably seeing it right now. You’ve seen the landscape. Little orange bags are popping up everywhere.”

Evidence that bark beetles have infested a tree is orange-brown bore dust found in bark crevices in the lower part of the tree’s trunk or on the ground at its base. According to Wetzstein, about two-thirds of western U.S. forests are highly susceptible to disturbance (fire, insects, etc.) due to physiological stress from drought, making them more susceptible to the effects of native and non-native insects.

“I don’t have a crystal ball with all the answers, but with continued warming and below-average rainfall, it’s likely that we will see sustained mortality from a variety of different insects and pathogens in our landscapes,” Wetzstein wrote in an email.

Even so, he said they are working to find ways to tackle the tree mortality problem, including an annual tree planting program.

Because planting can be expensive, the nonprofit National Forest Foundation is helping National Forests pay for seedlings from the US Forest Service’s nursery in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

The seeds are collected on site and adapted to the site before being sent back to Coeur d’Alene for processing and then planting.

“It wasn’t just Home Depot seeds that were grown, who knows where,” Wetzstein said.

Wetzstein said they plant western larch and ponderosa pines at low to mid-elevations and whitebark pines at higher elevations because all three species are insect, fire and disease resistant.

Total planting in the Rice Ridge Footprint to date is 2,011 acres.

As of 2018, her planting work includes:

• 2018: Planted 170 acres in the Dunham Creek Drainage

• 2019: Planted 160 acres in Trail Creek Drainage

• 2020: Planted 643 acres primarily in the Seeley Creek and Trail Creek drainages

• 2021: Planting of 595 acres spread across the Trail Creek, Morrell Mountain, Cottonwood Lakes and Dunham Creek drainage areas

• 2022: Planted 443 acres primarily in the Shanley and Little Shanley Creeks drainages

Ecological impact on moose

Near the same bridge on Dunham Creek Road, Carver leaned forward and weeded the nearby hill. After the fire, an increase in soil nutrients, bare soil, and sunlight provided the best environment for weeds, including thistle and knapweed.

“Anywhere there’s firefighting going on, there’s probably going to be weeds,” Carver snorted, placing the weeds in a roadside pile.

Ironically, this influx of nutrients also provided an opportunity for plants and animals to thrive. According to the Blackfoot Area Elk Report 2021 to 2022, elk populations in the Ovando/Helmville areas increased steadily from 2019 to 2022.

A final report released by Fish, Wildlife and Parks on moose access to food resources in the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area, also known as the Game Range, suggests that this may be due to improved forage quality after the fire.

Lauren Snobl, a forestry scientist at the University of Montana, co-led the moose project from December 2018 to June 2022 with FWP biologist and forestry professor Joshua Millspaugh.

The focus of the project was on the collar and collecting samples from moose and vegetation sites to better understand the post-fire distribution and diet of the moose. The most current data for land managers and biologists was produced at the Game Range by researchers Mark Hurley and Ross Batley in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Researchers used VHF radio collars to identify migration routes, summer areas and winter use.

Former FWP wildlife biologist Scott Eggeman proposed the latest project about three years before the study was conducted.

The initial focus of the project was to study how vegetation treatment at the Center Horse Project affected elk distribution, elk utilization, forage and nutritional status. Eggeman said the Rice Ridge fire changed that.

“The fire covered about 70% of the Blackfoot-Clearwater’s historical summer range,” Eggeman said. “So [Snobl] looked at the different degrees of burn severity and we collared these moose.

FWP contracted with Quicksilver Air, Inc. to capture the moose in the Game Range using a net cannon, a technique that involves shooting a net at a moose from a helicopter. After capture, the crew performed a series of tests and collared the moose before releasing it.

Blood samples were taken and teeth removed for age estimation, then sent to a lab to check for disease and test if the moose was pregnant. Then fecal samples were collected. Using plant fragments in the faecal pellets, FWP evaluated the important forage plants for winter nutrition.

Finally, they used a handheld ultrasound to measure trunk fat thickness and estimate the percentage of indigestible body fat. Body fat reflects the nutrient resources moose have in their summer range.

With no pre-fire data for the area, they sampled vegetation across a gradient of fire severity and vegetation type to estimate forage quality and quantity. The six types of vegetation cover included conifer-dominant mesic forests (subalpine fir and Engelmann spruce) and conifer-dominant dry forest types (block pine, ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, and western larch). Each of these had three fire severity categories: unburned, low severity, and high severity.

In years two and three after the fire, Snobl found no evidence that there was a significant difference in forage quality between burned and badly burned forests. Within fire severity classes, low-severity burns tend to have higher lining quality than high-severity burns. However, the game range did not differ significantly.

Haley Yarborough, Boy Scout

The bridge that crosses Lodgepole Creek north of Ovando. Seeley Lake District Ranger Quinn Carver said the hole in the shield was caused by the fire.

The report attributes this to the high proportion of low- and high-severity vegetation sampling sites that contained fireweed – an important forage species that establishes and spreads quickly after a fire due to its airborne seeds and rhizomatic nature.

The diet of the sample elk consisted mainly of willowherb, blueberries and sedge in summer and yarrow, western larch and fescue in winter.

“Overall, we recommend managers to allow Mesic forests to burn whenever possible, as these forests showed the greatest increase in moose forage quality when burned,” the report reads.

Staring at the fireweed, bilberry and other native and non-native plants, Carver said fire is an integral part of the ecosystem. While the fire created a prime environment for weeds and bark beetles, it also created a prime spot for other life to thrive.

“The vegetation here looks healthy and the ground is completely covered,” Carver said. “Recovery is going really well here.”

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