Scientists optimistic about #MullenFire recovery: Though it scarred certain zones, scientists believe the blaze may provide some long-term benefits to wildlife — WyoFile

A cluster of fireweed grows in the Mullen Fire burn area. (Christine Peterson)

From WyoFile (Christine Peterson):

Late in the summer of 2020, as hunting seasons ramped up and the world reeled from the COVID pandemic, a fire ignited in southeast Wyoming’s Snowy Range.

It sparked to life on Sept. 27 and grew rapidly, fueled by winds that raged to 70 mph. What would ultimately be called the Mullen Fire consumed or damaged dozens of structures over more than 176,000 acres.

Researchers say the size and intensity resulted from a combination of vast swaths of beetle-killed trees and unusually dry conditions exacerbated by climate change. While fire is natural, and in many ways necessary, biologists and fire managers weren’t sure how a blaze that big would impact the health of the ecosystem.

Smoke from the Mullen Fire on Sept. 30, 2020. (InciWeb)

A little more than a year later, they have a much clearer picture. In some places, the Mullen Fire burned so hot it sterilized the soil — meaning plant regeneration may take decades. In other places, the threat of invasive plant species looms large, and runoff, erosion and water degradation remain possibilities. But across the bulk of the forest, scientists have found, the fire may well provide long-term benefits to wildlife. It cleared away dead trees that needed to go and ushered in aspens, willows, wildflowers and grasses.

“Hopefully we have a good snowpack and greater spring rain next year for continued recovery,” said Ryan Amundson, a Wyoming Game and Fish Department terrestrial habitat biologist.

There’s still much to be learned, but for now, wildlife and land managers are encouraged by what remains from Wyoming’s largest wildfire in recent history.

Wildlife habitat

Amundson was nervous when he first ventured into the burn area after snow melted and summer began, he said.

Little moisture fell on the area in April, May and June. Snowpack had been low. Spring regeneration — the plants that usually sprout as soon as the snow melts — was almost nonexistent. Then record high heat in June, cut the growing season short. He wondered if any plants would have a chance to grow back.

But summer rains arrived. By late September, some aspens in the burn area measured three feet tall. Willows and wildflowers flourished.

A yellow heart leaf arnica grows in the Mullen Fire burn zone. (Christine Peterson)

“In areas we were assessing in early spring, I thought I was going to see very high shrub mortality, but we just needed to be patient and let Mother Nature do her thing,” he said.

Not only did species like elk, deer and bighorn sheep survive into this year, they are thriving, said Lee Knox, Wyoming Game and Fish wildlife biologist in the Laramie region.

Deer killed during this year’s hunting season are fat, nourished by the new growth that sprouted in areas now cleared of stands of dead trees.

Bighorn sheep will particularly benefit from open areas created by the fire. Sheep need to be able to see long distances, and tree encroachment shrinks their available habitat. Wildlife officials are conducting a study with collared sheep to track their movements and progress in the newly cleared areas.

The post-burn forage in some places may be so good that Knox is concerned about elk and deer overgrazing the new aspen and willow growth, he said. He and other wildlife biologists will continue to encourage hunters to focus on herds in and around the burn area to be sure the new shrubs have a chance to grow.

“Deer and elk thrive in successional change,” Knox said. “There’s not a lot for them in old growth forests. They need forbs and grasses and aspen communities to allow them to be fatter and have healthier babies and expand.”

The lack of spring moisture and low snowpack also resulted in minimal runoff and erosion, according to a recent study completed by Game and Fish.

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

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