Friday, September 23, 2016

Grazing and Fire Behavior

previously published as commentary in the Post Register, September 21, 2016

We summer cattle in the mountains of Southeastern Idaho, and last week after checking the herd, we took the long way home through Bone and toured the area of the Henry’s Creek Fire. Ouch! The devastation along Willow Creek is hard to grasp. This once dense thicket of willows looks like a bombing range.

Fire is from time-to-time a natural occurrence, and there will undoubtedly be some beneficial effects of this fire as time goes on, but it will hardly offset the costs of fire-fighting to the taxpayer (in the millions) and the cost to wildlife through short term habitat destruction, never mind the cost in private property damage. Worse yet is the nagging fear that this fire will be followed by more to come if drier, hotter summers become the norm. The desert west of us is where they have to worry about devastating range fires . . . right? 

We drove to a vantage point where you can see where the Tex Creek Wildlife Management Area abuts private ground. It’s easy to observe the fence line contrast between the total annihilation of plant life caused by dense fuel loads (years of ungrazed grass) on the wildlife management side, and the much reduced effects of the fire as it entered a landscape that had been grazed and consequently had less fuel. Is this difference significant to the recovery process?   

The Wildlife Management Area, originally acquired as mitigation for the Ririe and Teton dams, encompasses some 34,000 acres. It provides vital winter habitat for 8,000 – 10,000 elk, deer and moose. We’ve yet to hear what percentage of the area burned, but we know it was significant.   

This wildlife refuge, combined with Conservation Reserve Program lands in the vicinity, meant plenty of ground in the path of the fire was “set aside” from grazing. Did this have an impact on fire behavior? Is it time to consider adding domestic grazers to the management scheme of the Wildlife Management Area?

I’d like those two questions to quietly sit in the minds of wildlife managers - without any opinion attached to them for the time being.

And remember, grazing isn’t grazing isn’t grazing. Perhaps a light spring graze would leave plenty of forage for the elk, and in fact freshen it a bit for better palatability when the wild herds return. But I’m not advocating grazing as much as I’m advocating a conversation that includes grazing as an alternative.  

I’m reminded of a commencement address I listened to this spring given by James Ryan, dean of the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University. He talked of the need for “inquiry over advocacy,” of asking “wait, what?” when confronted with the curiosities of life. He said we’re too quick to race to the answer instead of searching for the right question in the first place, or if the right question is found, exploring the nuances held in the answer(s).  

Ryan urged his students to “see past the easy answers and to focus instead on the difficult, the tricky, the mysterious, the awkward, and sometimes the painful.”

As devastating as the Henry’s Creek Fire appears, it presents a unique opportunity to contemplate questions that local ranchers, recreationists, and wildlife lovers should not let go unanswered.

Tex Creek Wildlife Management Area on the left, private ground on the right
photo by Becky Davis

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