Can Tex Creek ever look like this again? Yes, with time, but restoration is a gamble that can be hard to win.
With regard to the fire at Tex Creek WMA, the real question on peoples’ minds right now is, can Tex Creek ever rise from the ashes or will it become a new and lesser place for wildlife and wildlife-based recreation for the foreseeable future?
Habitat restoration is actually a fairly complex business where success is never guaranteed so it is a good question.
First, despite the severity and extent of the fire, it is not all gloom and doom. As with most things, opportunity is often borne of tragedy and in some places the fire may have done managers a favor.
Most of the thousands of acres of tame fields, should recover and actually benefit from the fire. It also provides an opportunity to convert some fields that are in undesirable species like smooth brome and intermediate wheatgrass into something much more wildlife friendly.
Aspen and chokecherry stands that should have functioned like fire retardant blankets were burned through, some very hotly. However, I have intentionally burned aspen in the past with excellent results in rejuvenating the stands. In the long run, fires in these places will likely be a benefit to game and non-game species alike. It will be a race though to keep weeds like burdock, houndstongue, mullein, Canada, bull and musk thistle from dominating the understory. I have seen that happen too.
This may also provide opportunity and incentive to develop green firebreaks that can subdue fires in the future. Species such as perennial forage kochia (not the annual kochia we love to hate) are highly sought after by deer and elk and stay green throughout the dry months. While it might be difficult to build a fire break that can best 40 mph winds, even a long swath of green 100 yards wide would slow the fire down considerably and leave green forage behind.
Finally, despite the fire’s intensity, it did leave a mosaic of unburned areas. These areas will provide seed sources for natural seeding and for seed collection to raise plants in nurseries. Using native seed always provides the best opportunity for successful restoration.
Rangeland fires have happened for eons of time so this fire really isn’t anything new. Two things are new to this system though: noxious weeds and concentrated wintering big game animals.
One of the biggest enemies of restoration efforts is noxious weeds. Two hundred years ago, a fire like this might have been perfectly natural and restoration would have eventually happened on its own. Now, noxious weeds like cheatgrass and knapweed can take advantage of the lack of competition and quickly dominate the site suppressing native vegetation. They are game changers from historical fire and make the outcome far less predictable.
Cheatgrass is the major competitor in sagebrush-steppe habitat, and the species most likely to thwart restoration efforts. However, other annual and perennial weeds such as leafy spurge, yellow toadflax, annual kochia, mullein, Russian thistle, mustards and more will play a role.
New tools in the war on weeds will help. For instance, a recently released biological control will take on cheatgrass over time, giving native plants a chance to germinate and thrive over thousands of currently infested acres. However, some of the most useful chemicals, and even the biological controls, are not approved for use on Federal BLM ground, which constitutes much of the blackened lower elevations, both on and off the WMA.
Sheer numbers of wintering big game animals can change the dynamics of recovery. Seven to eight thousand deer, elk and moose are expected to arrive on the WMA beginning in November. They are going to find much of their grocery store black or missing altogether. If they have their way with unburned areas, newly seeded fields and resprouting aspens, chokecherries, bitterbrush and serviceberry, they could setback or even halt recovery and potentially degrade remaining habitats.
There is one last thing that will determine how Tex Creek WMA will recover. During my career, my mantra was, “Rain—it makes you a hero or a zero.” By that I meant that the very best restoration effort is made or broken by precipitation, something managers have no control over. Moisture, or the lack of it, at the right times and in the right places, may determine how successful all the seeding and planting will be.
Twenty years from now we will hopefully be benefitting from the results of this fire. In the short term though, specifically the next several winters, things will be tough. Landowners in the area have recognized this and are already stepping forward asking what they can do to help. In the long run, increased cooperation, and a sense of, “we are all in this together”, may be of more benefit than the current problems that the fire caused.
Wildlife License Plates
Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.
No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.
Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.
Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program. Go figure.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Idaho Falls Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center (425 Capital)
Perfect Light Photo Supply
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho