Wildlife follow fire into Tahoe Basin
Tahoe Basin forests are still feeling the effects of Comstock Era clear-cutting, a century of fire suppression and an infestation of bark beetles. In the final article of a series on the health of the basin’s forests, the Tahoe Daily Tribune takes a look at an indirect benefit of reintroducing fire.
Almost as soon as the ash cooled from controlled fires in the Tahoe Basin, forest managers noticed that deer, mountain lions and pine martens had moved into the burned-over areas.
At Sugar Pine Point State Park, the use of prescribed burns since 1984 seems to be making the forest more attractive to wildlife, said Gary Walter, a state park ecologist.
“There seems to be something about the ash that brings the deer in,” Walter said. “We are seeing more deer, and with the increase we have started to see mountain lions. I’ve also seen pine martens. There’s probably a lot less cover for the rodents they eat to hide in.”
On the basin’s East Shore, Mark Johnson of the U.S. Forest Service also observed large numbers of deer moving into an area that has been thinned and where fire has cleaned up the understory.
“We’re seeing more deer in the Spooner area,” said Johnson, an assistant fire management officer with the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. “The funny thing is, we’re seeing more deer even with mechanical thinning, before the commencement of burning.”
The wildlife population boom comes as no surprise to Craig Mortimore, a supervising biologist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife’s Region 1.
The basin’s uniformly aged trees that resulted from clear-cutting and fire suppression are not the most favored habitat for wildlife, Mortimore said.
“When a dense pine forest is destroyed, it creates open space and allows for other stages of plant succession,” he said. “Early plant stages create opportunities that allow for a greater diversity and, often times, a greater abundance of animals.”
Mortimore called the increase in pine marten, a type of weasel, a classic example of the effect of fire. While pine marten need old-growth forest to survive, they thrive when open spaces create a favorable hunting territory.
“In a dense forest, the number of voles, often called meadow mice, will be significantly less than in open space, especially where there are fallen snags,” Mortimore said. “That’s important because voles are at the bottom of the food chain. If you increase the density of voles, the density of animals that prey on them will also increase.”
Mortimore said the reintroduction of fire in the Tahoe Basin is creating the kind of mosaic of plant communities that existed before the profound changes of the 19th century. The edges of clearings are some of the most attractive habitats for wildlife.
And, by reducing the amount of trees and debris, controlled fires have allowed plants like bitterbrush and manzanita to flourish.
“Deer are browsers,” Mortimore said. “When you have a canopy of conifers, they shade out a lot of brush. After a fire clears out the forest, you have the grasses and forbs come in and brush seedlings get a start.”
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