Wildfires’ effects on habitat can last decades | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Wildfires’ effects on habitat can last decades

Sandra Chereb

RENO (AP) – Flames that have blackened more than 1 million acres of Nevada over the past three months are subsiding, but the effects of environmental damage and loss of habitat for wildlife and livestock will be felt for decades, officials warn.

“It’s devastating. It’s kind of an unreal deal that happened this summer,” said Ken Gray, a biologist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife in Elko.

Boyd Spratling, a Deeth veterinarian and president of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association, said the fires have been “equally if not more devastating” to the ranching industry.

“The same habitat that provides areas for all wildlife is used for grazing,” Spratling said.

“These are not marginal rangelands” that have burned this year, he said. “They are the best.”

As of Tuesday, an estimated 900,000 acres – or more than 1,400 square miles – of prime rangeland used by wildlife and livestock in Elko County alone has burned this year. That’s an area nearly equal to that of Rhode Island.

Fires have eliminated habitat for more than 10,000 sage grouse, have burned over 60 percent of the winter range for one of Nevada’s largest and most productive antelope herds, and have charred much of the remaining transition and winter habitat of a deer herd that once numbered close to 30,000, Gray said in a synopsis of the fire’s impact.

The same herd, in a region known as Area Six in northeast Nevada, has been reeling from years of devastating fires and will be lucky if it can sustain 6,000 animals – an 80 percent decline, he said.

Likewise, about 60 percent of winter range for antelope in the region has been destroyed, and the population, estimated at 1,100, will have to be reduced by about a third, Gray said.

The wildlife agency instituted an emergency hunt to try to harvest an additional 150 to 200 animals, and hopes to trap and relocate an equal number of animals to other areas, he said.

Spratling said the full scope of damage to ranchers is not yet known.

“A significant amount of cattle were burned,” he said. “Cattle were lost running through the fire … or they end up burning their feet and having to be destroyed afterward.”

But the bigger loss, he said, is productive rangeland.

“It’s not just their public allotments,” Spratling said. “Some of their private lands have been destroyed. Some of these ranches, there will be some families that just can’t recover from this.”

So far this year, about 1.4 million have burned in Nevada, much of it in the northeastern part of the state. It’s Nevada’s most voracious fire season since 1999, when 1.6 million acres of mostly rangeland was destroyed.

“It’s interesting how these fires are connected,” Gray noted. “A lot of what burned in ’99 didn’t re-burn this year.

Seven years ago, he said, the fires mainly burned low-elevation areas infested with cheatgrass, an invasive weed the chokes out native vegetation and dries out quickly, creating a carpet of fuel ready to explode with the slightest spark.

This year, more perennial grasses and sagebrush have burned. Gray and Spratling said the occurrence is strange, considering Nevada has had back-to-back wet winters.

“It’s just extremely odd, especially in the elevations it’s burning,” Gray said. “Usually, when you have these wetter winters, the upper elevations don’t burn as well.”

Gray and Spratling have different theories on the cause.

Gray wonders if a cyclical resurgence of a moth that attacks sagebrush could be fueling the fires’ intensity. Called Aroga websteri, the moth strips sagebrush of its leaves, leaving the plant weakened and often dead.

“Its whole life cycle is based on sagebrush,” Gray said. In the past, outbreaks have lasted a few years then gone away.

But Gray said he started noticing sagebrush die-offs in 2000. “This year, it’s really started to take off,” he said.

Jeff Knight, an entomologist with the Nevada Department of Agriculture, said it’s the largest outbreak in four decades.

“I remember other small outbreaks, but nothing to the scale that we have now,” Knight said, adding large swaths of rangeland across northern Nevada have been affected.

“There’s really nothing we can do about it,” he added. “It’s part of the natural cycle that these things go through.”

Spratling said public land managers may need to reconsider the extent to which the range can sustain various levels of both wildlife and livestock.

“Perhaps we need to look a little differently on how we manage grazing and fuel buildups on public lands,” he said.

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