CNHP Wetland Ecologists Joanna Lemly and Sarah Marshall hold a wetland soil core taken from Todd Gulch Fen at 10,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies. The dark, carbon-rich core is about 3 feet long. Living plants at its top provide thermal insulation, keeping the soil cold enough that decomposition by microbes is very slow. William Moomaw, Tufts University, CC BY-ND
San Creek in Aurora
Map of the Roaring Fork River watershed via the Roaring Fork Conservancy
Here’s the release from the Environmental Protection Agency (Lisa McClain-Vanderpool):
Colorado Natural Heritage Society and Colorado State University-Natural Heritage Program will provide invaluable resources to Roaring Fork and Aurora watershed stakeholders
EPA has awarded $575,333 in wetlands grants to two programs in Colorado to survey, assess, map and provide technological tools such as smart phone applications.
“The data these projects generate are important to understanding, protecting and restoring wetlands in the state of Colorado,” said Darcy O’Connor, Assistant Regional Administrator of the Office of Water Protection. “Supporting decision making with solid scientific data is the wise approach to wetlands protection.”
Colorado Natural Heritage Society was awarded $221,250 to survey and assess critical wetlands in the Roaring Fork watershed in western Colorado. This project proposes to conduct a prioritized survey and assessment for critical wetlands within the Roaring Fork Watershed. The primary goal is to provide stakeholders, including private landowners with scientifically valid data on the condition, rarity, location, acres, and types of wetlands within the watershed.
Colorado State University’s Colorado Natural Heritage Program (CNHP) was awarded $221,250 for the 5th phase of CNHP’s wetlands database including vegetation classification, floristic quality assessment, a wetland restoration database and updates to the Colorado Wetlands Mobile App. The CNHP will revise Colorado’s wetland and riparian vegetation classification and floristic quality assessment, and create a Colorado wetland and stream restoration database.
The CNHP was also awarded $132,833 to assess critical urban wetlands in the city of Aurora, Colorado. CNHP will update the National Wetland Inventory mapping and conduct field-based wetland assessments in the greater Aurora area. Water quality data will also be collected at these sites. The goal is to create useful products for local land managers, land owners and community members.
EPA has awarded over $2.5 million in wetlands grant funding for 11 projects across EPA’s mountains and plains region of the West (Region 8). Healthy wetlands perform important ecological functions, such as feeding downstream waters, trapping floodwaters, recharging groundwater supplies, removing pollution, and providing habitat for fish and wildlife.
Wetlands Program Development Grants assist state, tribal, local government agencies, and interstate/intertribal entities in building programs that protect, manage, and restore wetlands and aquatic resources. States, tribes, and local wetlands programs are encouraged to develop wetlands program plans, which help create a roadmap for building capacity and achieving long-term environmental goals.
If voters approve the proposed 0.25 percent countywide sales tax at the November general election, a portion of funds would be used to treat forest lands.
The U.S. Forest Service currently treats about 1,200 acres per year. With additional funding, that number would grow to 4,000 acres annually, nearly triple the number of acres that could see mitigation.
The sales tax would generate about $1 million per year and would be used to:
• Strengthen forest health;
• Conserve and support working ranches, farms and rural landscapes; and
• Manage impacts of growth in outdoor recreation.
Cindy Williams, co-lead with County Commissioner Greg Felt of Envision Chaffee County, the entity that is the impetus behind the proposal, said the goal would be to treat 2 percent of forested public lands, about 4,000 acres, in the county each year.
Responsibility for maintaining public lands in the county rests with the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Managment and state of Colorado. But, Felt said, the agencies do not have the budget or the staff to properly maintain lands under their jurisdiction.
An example of how funding would be used is the current project on Monarch Pass. In concert with the U.S. Forest Service, a number of entities have joined forces in an effort to remove beetle-killed dead standing trees to improve forest health, reduce the danger of wildfires and protect water supplies.
Williams said various entities, including the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District, Monarch Mountain, Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District and Pueblo and Colorado Springs water utilities, are supporting the project.
Monarch Pass is the headwaters of the South Arkansas River, which is a source of water for the city of Salida and dozens of irrigators.
Mitigation work, she said, would protect towns, water supplies, water infrastructure, the recreation economy, wildlife and wildlife habitat.
Felt said Chaffee County has contributed $48,000 from the Conservation Trust Fund to the program.
The idea behind this element of the sales tax, he said, “is to leverage interests of other water-related organizations” who have an interest in water quality and the resource.
If the county puts $500,000 from the proposed conservation tax toward forest mitigation work, Felt said the goal would be to generate an additional $5 million from other sources.
“The goal,” Felt said, “is not to spend a million dollars a year on conservation, but to leverage that into $5 million” to benefit the county.
He said if there is local interest, the county will be able to do more by drawing money from other organizations and agencies…
Williams said the net result of the tax would be to bring additional dollars through grants and participating partners into the county to be used to benefit county resources.
Williams said representatives of agencies and foundations she has talked to about the county conservation project have said they typically do not see communities coming together like this, including governments, businesses and citizens.
The Gates Family Foundation, she said, is monitoring the county as a possible development model with new tools for other Western states.
Felt said Envision has “blown out of the water” representatives of foundations and government agencies who have become aware of the project and now want to play a part in the program as it evolves.</blockquote.
The Dolores River shows us what’s at stake in the fight to protect the American West — Conservation Colorado
Photo via the Sheep Mountain Alliance
Dolores River watershed
Dolores River south of Lizard Head Pass
Dolores River near Bedrock
Dolores River above Dolores
Dolores River Canyon near Paradox
FromThe Walton Family Foundation (Peter Skidmore):
In the Colorado River Basin, RiversEdge West leads a coordinated effort to restore critical habitat
Doug King’s family has been ranching the lands around the Dolores River in Southwest Colorado since the 1930’s. “It’s beautiful−I call it John Wayne country,” Doug says, proudly. “I’m the third generation on the land, my son will be the fourth generation, and his son will be the fifth.”
Over the decades, Doug experienced firsthand the steady, relentless creep of invasive plant species like tamarisk and Russian olive and its impact on the land he has cared for his whole life. The damage has been extensive, threatening the larger riparian—or river bank—habitat that in the Colorado River Basin ultimately supports more than 40 million lives across two nations.
As the unwelcome vegetation pressed in on essential farmland and fish and wildlife habitat, Doug and many others in the region understood it was time to lock arms and push back.
Originally conceptualized in 1999 to discuss strategies for addressing invasive plant species along rivers in western Colorado, the then-named Tamarisk Coalition was fueled by a desire to shape a landscape-scale solution. The group had observed that conventional site-by-site eradication simply wasn’t able to move quickly enough.
“People were getting grants to do five acres or half a mile” of tamarisk removal, recalls Tim Carlson, the coalition’s first executive director. “That wasn’t going to solve the problem. We started with a bold approach: If we were going to solve this problem, it’s got to be a regional solution.”
The introduction of the tamarisk is a story of unintended consequences. Long thought to prevent erosion along the banks of western rivers, its presence was so valued in earlier days that Boy Scouts would receive badges for planting it. But the persistent shrub with scale-like leaves took to its adopted habitat like a parasite, displacing native vegetation.
Restoring and sustaining the overall health of the Colorado River Basin has been a primary goal of the Walton Family Foundation’s Environment Program since its inception nearly a decade ago. And, the program’s first grant to the Tamarisk Coalition in 2009 supported its restoration efforts along the San Miguel and Dolores river systems. Gradually, the foundation expanded its support to also include work along the Escalante, Verde and Gila systems.
“We have a great relationship with the foundation where we present innovative ideas, and they help us scale up these efforts. The investment affects a vast landscape, bolsters our work and has helped us promote best practices to other organizations,” says Cara Kukuraitis, outreach and education coordinator for the organization now known as RiversEdge West.
The organization changed its name in 2018 to reflect its broader work in Western riparian areas and the surrounding communities. But it retains its unique and core operating model—to facilitate collaboration and information-sharing across diverse groups and individuals to accomplish riparian restoration at a larger scale than any one partner can attain on its own. As a result, RiversEdge West now supports 20 ambitious multi-stakeholder partnerships encompassing federal, state, and community organizations throughout the American West, teaching best practices to over 300 local public and private restoration organizations and successfully restoring some 11,500 acres—and counting—of riparian habitat.
The state of Colorado is among the group’s core partners.
“Our relationship with RiversEdge West has allowed Colorado Parks and Wildlife to more effectively meet our mission of improving the wildlife habitat within the state,” explains Peter Firmin, manager of the James M. Robb-Colorado River State Park.
“The networking and training opportunities provided by RiversEdge West allow us to leverage intellectual and financial resources to improve habitat along the Colorado River. As a group, we are able to accomplish more than we could as individuals.”
The work of RiversEdge West and its growing network is bolstered by an array of technical tools. For example, a multi-partner geodatabase stores and shares data with land managers, so they can see how their projects connect and positively impact the landscape over time.
“The data helps us establish and measure progress against quantitative goals, so the project can jump from removing tamarisk by just cutting trees to collecting data on the extent of the problem and promoting ways to encourage the ecosystem’s overall health,” says Cara.
It is a testament to the organization’s enduring value that its annual conference attracts upwards of 200 representatives from Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, California, Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Utah and Mexico to connect on riparian restoration science.
The organization also is working to convey the broad importance of these efforts through its ongoing “Riverside Stories” web series, which tells the personal stories of people who call this land home and are working to restore this habitat for future generations. Among them is Doug and his family.
“I have a theory that we should leave the land better than how we got it,” Doug notes in sharing his story. “The Colorado River is soon going to be the most important resource in the West. We are just caretakers. You are only going to be here 50-60 years, and then somebody else is going to have this land.
Like many Westerners, giant sequoias came recently from farther east. Of course, “recent” is a relative term. “You’re talking millions of years (ago),” William Libby said. The retired University of California, Berkeley, plant geneticist has been studying the West Coast’s towering trees for more than half a century. Needing cooler, wetter climates, the tree species arrived at their current locations some 4,500 years ago — about two generations. “They left behind all kinds of Eastern species that did not make it with them, and encountered all kinds of new things in their environment,” Libby said. Today, sequoias grow on the western slopes of California’s Sierra Nevada.
Now, it may be up to humans to move sequoias and their close relatives, coast redwoods, to new homes. As temperatures rise and the world’s climate rapidly changes, many plants and animals may not be able to relocate fast enough on their own — including the Klamath Mountains’ Brewer spruce, which grows on windswept peaks, and the New Mexico ridge-nosed rattlesnake, which can be found marooned on just a few isolated mountaintops. But the prospect of mixing and moving species alarms scientists, because of the risks involved — both to the new ecosystem, and to the species themselves.
Plants often move on the geologic timescale of landforms. After all, trees don’t simply uproot and stroll away from stressful conditions. Instead, whole populations shift, as individuals in one part of the range die out and saplings in other places grow. But ecosystems are changing on a human timescale now. That’s a problem for the West’s iconic giant trees.
Coast redwoods, which are the world’s tallest trees, and sequoias, which are the most massive, are exceptionally adaptable: The oldest living trees have withstood cold spells, drought and fire. But today’s extraordinary rate of climate change — along with habitat destruction and fire suppression — may be too much for them to survive. “If we expect them to make a big migration in one century, that’s asking a lot,” Libby said. Populations of both sequoias and coast redwoods are dwindling, and the trees are already considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Scientists fear climate change could drive them to extinction.
These trees are among the slowest travelers in North America, in part because of how they reproduce. Coast redwood seeds are moved by wind or rain, while insects and rodents move sequoia seeds. But few seeds germinate successfully. Instead, for the most part, clonal sprouts grow up from the shallow, stretching roots of a mature tree. In the case of coast redwoods, deceased elders can leave behind a “fairy ring” of surrounding younger trees, just a few feet from where the parent stood. In order to outpace hotter conditions, this gradual process may need a human nudge.
While Westerners already relocate plants and animals — for species reintroductions, hunting, agriculture and more — there is still no consensus on rescuing organisms from climate change this way. In a 2006 opinion piece, two well-known ecologists, Anthony Ricciardi and David Simberloff, dismissed assisted migration as “planned invasions,” a “new bandwagon,” and “ecological gambling.” The risks that introduced species might pose to plants and animals already living in a region are too unknown, hard to predict, and potentially disastrous to be worth it, they said. They concluded that conservation biologists should focus on breeding rare species in captivity, restoring habitat and ending human-caused climate change.
Past experiences with introductions gone awry make scientists nervous. In the 1940s, the federal government introduced buffelgrass, a drought-hardy African forage, to Arizona to help cattle survive dry spells. The grass spread, filling in the spaces between desert plants, replacing natural firebreaks with ready fuel and turning swaths of desert across the Southwest into fire-prone grasslands. In 2010, the National Park Service warned that buffelgrass covered about 2 percent of Saguaro National Park and was increasing by 35 percent annually.
Few U.S. scientists have tried experimental assisted migrations, and in Canada and Mexico, the results of experiments have been mixed. In 2015, Canadian researchers studied Douglas fir trees that were moved more than 40 years previously throughout coastal British Columbia for reforestation research. They found that transferred trees sometimes did not grow as well as local trees, because they didn’t form symbiotic relationships as effectively with local soil and root fungi, which help trees absorb nutrients. Mexican researchers found that when they moved three species of Mexican pines to higher elevations and colder temperatures, two species struggled to survive in locations more than a few hundred feet above their current ranges.
These findings speak to one broad concern about moving species around to save them: It can cause unnecessary suffering, eat up limited conservation funding, and ultimately fail. In one recent example, 11 black rhinos were relocated in Kenya. All 11 perished from salt poisoning, dehydration and, in one case, a lion attack on a weakened animal, according to the Daily Nation. Mary Williams, an ecologist who has researched assisted migration as a climate adaptation strategy, cautioned against the “extreme” movement of plants. She recommended instead that seeds be taken from the warmer parts of a plant’s existing range, to be grown in cooler parts of its range. Then, when those cooler areas warmed, the plants would already be adapted to the new conditions.
Because a species’ resilience comes from its genetic diversity, spreading the clones or seeds of too few plants could also doom an assisted migration project. Connie Millar, a senior scientist with the U.S. Forest Service who studies how mountain ecosystems are responding to climate change, recommends mixing the gene pools of the trees used for assisted migration projects by collecting seeds and clones from different locations. “Then, natural selection 50 years in the future can sort it out, and we don’t have to predict (survivors), which we’re very bad at doing,” she said.
Agencies in the U.S. have toyed with the idea of assisted migration, but no projects are currently in the works. To make tree transplants work, federal agencies would have to find the money for the prolonged follow-up work needed to keep them alive: artificial watering, fertilizer feedings, protective fencing to keep out hungry deer. “Just like in a garden, when you transplant, there’s usually transplant shock,” Millar said. “It takes a while for roots to get down. … It’s not like they’re happy all of a sudden.” Similar constraints would limit animal introductions. In many cases, for agencies, shifting species would also require new regulations, such as those that govern post-wildfire replanting.
The biggest unknown about assisted migration may come down to human behavior: Without knowing how much fossil fuel people will keep burning, researchers can’t say for sure how much the climate will change, or where a particular organism’s optimal neighborhood will be in the year 2100.
As scientists fret, some members of the general public are already forging ahead. Michigan-based Archangel Ancient Trees Archive is attempting to plant thousands of nursery-grown coast redwoods and sequoias in the West, without waiting for more scientific research. Sequoias and coast redwoods, founder David Milarch said, are “magical” trees. “People all over the planet love those trees.”
Now in his 80s, Milarch dedicated himself to saving these species — and many other imperiled trees — a quarter-century ago, after his own near-death experience. Milarch recalled an archangel turning him back from the gates of heaven because he still had work to do on Earth: He had to save tree species. So Milarch focused his fourth-generation nursery business on trying to conserve many of the world’s disappearing tree species through assisted migration.
In many ways, this Noah’s Ark approach to conservation flies in the face of scientific understanding: In addition to planting trees far from their current range, Archangel also chooses the oldest, biggest trees — which Milarch calls “champions” — to clone, a sensible-seeming approach that actually masks assumptions about how those trees got that way. Sometimes, seedlings grow into strapping adults because of dumb luck: Maybe they dug into particularly rich soil, or it rained buckets during their first decade, or they happened to germinate near a gap in the forest canopy that let in lots of light. Clones of those trees may wither without the same help in a new location. Archangel tries to take genetic diversity into account by growing genetically diverse seedlings as well as sprouts cut from “champion” tree clones, but its collection overall still lacks the diversity of a natural population.
Still, Archangel inspires volunteers around the world. Perhaps that’s because it offers hope, pulling believers into the boughs of ancient sequoias on climbing expeditions and insisting that concerned people can do their part to end climate change simply by planting trees.
Milarch likes to point out that Archangel has been able to grow cuttings from trees thousands of years old, something he says scientists told him was impossible. Driven by his faith, Milarch offers a solution to climate change that doesn’t require watershed changes in politics — or in how people use fossil fuels. “Climate change can be reversed,” he said, noting the carbon-storing capacity of the West’s giant trees. “We don’t have to be saddled with such a dubious future for our children, our grandchildren, if we all would plant two or four trees.”
Particularly for beloved species such as coast redwoods and sequoias, there may be more rogue rescue efforts in the future. And while scientists worry about unintended consequences, Williams sees the advantages of shaking off political drag. “Sometimes, in situations like this, there may be some really great things that come out of it,” she said. “You just need to take a risk and see what happens.”
Maya L. Kapoor is an associate editor at High Country News.
Boulder County biologists studying Preble’s meadow jumping mouse and fish populations along the St. Vrain Creek have been encouraged this summer by signs of species rejuvenating since their habitats were altered by the 2013 flood…
Restoration efforts also have been conducive to bolstering populations of certain “transition zone” fish that need shady habitat and water temperatures between the colder sections of stream at higher elevations and the warmer sections through Longmont and east of the city.
Fish trends promising, concerns remain
As Boulder County wildlife biologist Mac Kobza has tallied fish caught by his team of six research assistants this summer along the St. Vrain, he’s chalked up seven species, an improvement in the river’s fish diversity over the past five years.
White suckers, brown trout and minnows like johnny darters and longnose daces were among those caught and documented Tuesday, adding to the counts of fish in the area tracked this summer and for the past five years by Kobza…
Diversion dams and other irrigation ditch structures that pull water from the St. Vrain to deliver it to other water rights holders since the flood have been redesigned in some places to allow easier fish passage, but some ditch companies have hesitated to modify their apparatus.
“I think they’re resistant because it can be expensive. Colorado Parks and Wildlife is trying to work with those ditch companies and provide some of the funding to allow (more fish passage) to happen,” Longmont Land Program Administrator Dan Wolford said.
The tamarisk, which was brought to the U.S. from Eurasia in the late 1800s for erosion control, windbreaks and decoration, is much detested. Since its introduction, tamarisk – also known as salt cedar – has been blamed for choking waterways, hogging water and salting the earth as its range expands, driving out such native trees as cottonwood and willows. In Palisade, Colorado, a state lab is breeding beetles whose sole purpose is to destroy tamarisk. At one point, the University of Nevada published a poster about the plant titled WANTED – Dead, Not Alive!
“There’s been a concerted effort to demonize tamarisk,” said Matt Chew, a historian of invasion biology at Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences. But he thinks this war is aimed at the wrong enemy.
The tree, he said, is a scapegoat for our struggle with something much bigger and messier than weedy fields: our relationship with water in the West.
The tamarisk has a reputation for hogging water – but is it warranted?
“This is one of the constant counts against tamarisk – that it’s wasting water,” Chew said. “That particular idea got started in the late 1930s and early 1940s for a very particular reason.”
Back then, Chew says, the Phelps Dodge Corp. wanted to expand its copper mine in Arizona, but it didn’t have the water it needed for the additional mining and processing. All the water rights to a nearby creek and river had been allocated.
“What they needed was an excuse to say there was more water in the rivers so that Phelps Dodge could have more water,” Chew said. “So, where are they going to get more water?”
Phelps Dodge inspected nearby water sources and found lots of tamarisk growing along the banks, Chew said. Mine officials rationalized that if they could prove the tamarisk was draining river water, he said, the mine could potentially get the rights to the “extra” water available by killing tamarisk.
“Phelps Dodge did a bunch of experiments which were later picked up by the Agriculture Department,” Chew said, adding that Phelps Dodge ended up getting its water rights through other means, but the tamarisk’s image was destroyed.
As Chew writes in the “Journal of the History of Biology,” “with water shortages, economic development during the Depression and copper mining for national defense during World War Two, federal hydrologists moved quickly to recast tamarisks as water-wasting foreign monsters.”
Since then, researchers have shown that the tree doesn’t use more water than native riparian vegetation, including cottonwoods.
To make matters worse, big changes were occurring in the 1930s and ’40s in the way that water was being moved through the West. Dams and diversions were changing the patterns of flooding, patterns that used to be in sync with the reproductive cycle of more sensitive native plants, such as cottonwoods.
“To some extent, the way we were managing Western rivers actually created a giant tamarisk housing project,” Chew said. If the tamarisk is a monster, he said, it’s because we created it.
“If you want good, old-fashioned 17th-century riparian areas in the western U.S.,” Chew said, “you can’t take all the water out of the river. You can’t have big irrigated fields. You can’t have huge cities.”
Anna Sher, an invasive species biologist at the University of Denver and author of the book “Tamarix: A Case Study of Ecological Change in the American West,” agrees that Tamarix (the species’ genus) isn’t all bad.
Yes, Tamarix can create saltier surface soil that retards other vegetation, and its dense wood can fuel more intense fires. Sher even has heard that a boater drowned in Arizona because rescuers couldn’t get through the dense thickets of tamarisk crowding the shore in time to help him.
But, she says, “I certainly do not hate this plant.”
It provides nesting spots for the Southwestern willow flycatcher, for example, and she says it’s entirely possible for the trees to be a part of the landscape without completely taking over.
“It’s only behaving badly because of the way that we’ve managed our rivers,” Sher said.
Although the way we manage our rivers isn’t going to change anytime soon, Sher sees hope for restoring the landscape. It’s called the Field of Dreams hypothesis.
“The Field of Dreams hypothesis predicts that when you remove the invasive species, there’s an opportunity for the desirable species to come in,” she said.
Initially, Sher and other ecologists suspected the hypothesis was a pipe dream.
“But after doing surveys of hundreds of sites throughout the American Southwest, we can see that, on average, native species will come back and they’ll come back proportionally to how much tamarisk has been removed,” she said. “More tamarisk taken out, more native plants can come in.”
There are two conditions required for successful restoration. First, there has to be enough water in the rivers and streams to supply the new vegetation. Second, the public has to remain open to what native plants might come back. They might not be the cottonwoods and willows people hope for.
“It’s a new game now with Tamarix here and with the water needs that we have now,” Sher said, and humans will have to get used to plants that can handle the landscape as we’ve shaped it.
Those plants might be drought-adapted shrubs and grasses instead of picnic-worthy trees. And they will most certainly have a tamarisk or two as neighbors.
The Martin Fire broke out in the morning hours of July 5th and ripped through dry vegetation to quickly become the largest blaze in the United States, the largest this season and the largest single fire in Nevada history. As of Wednesday night, the fire had burned in more than 439,000 acres, or about 686 square-miles, an amount of land more than twice the size of New York City. It has not only destroyed grazing areas but has damaged an ecosystem for the sage grouse, the bird that has been a focal point of political wrangling because of the impact of its possible inclusion on the endangered species list.
On Wednesday, less than one week later, Stewart said that the fire had burnt nearly all of the ranch’s 100,000 acres of grazing land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management.
“It’s gone, it’s gone” he said. “Riding across there, it feels like you are on the moon.”
Federal land managers and rangeland ecologists expect there to be lasting impacts on grazing, wildlife and sagebrush habitat in the burned areas, with a full recovery taking up to a decade…
They also said that the fire is indicative of new dynamics on the range that leave more areas open to fire potential and make it possible for fires to grow faster and spread greater distances.
A spokesperson for the Martin Fire response team said there was 200 to 400 percent more fuel on the range because of a wet winter followed by a dry winter this year. And even though less-than-average snow fell on the Great Basin this year, there was considerable precipitation in the spring, Gardetto noted, which resulted in vegetation growth. But in turn, an especially hot summer meant that much of the vegetation that grew had dried up when the fire started last week.
“It’s creating a lot of extreme fire behavior that is making these fires very difficult to control,” Gardetto said. “That’s why you are seeing fires like the Martin Fire that just blow up.”
At times, the 25-mile wide front of the fire moved at 11 miles per hour. High winds contributed to why the Martin Fire moved so rapidly, growing to about 421,000 acres in just four days. Another reason the fire grew to such a large size was the presence of cheatgrass, a highly flammable invasive species that has overtaken much of the range in several Intermountain West states.
“Once cheatgrass is dominant, in a sense, the damage is done,” said Erica Fleishman, a professor at Colorado State University who has done work on the Great Basin ecosystem.
The flammable invasive species is the most responsive grass to precipitation and once it has grown in an area, it is hard to eliminate. Its seeds are also resilient and grow in burnt areas. Although livestock can feed off of cheatgrass, ranchers prefer other grass species for cattle.
The Nevada Department of Agriculture has received reports of burns at six ranches.
“We are fielding reports from ranchers and will assist with anything from identifying livestock to traffic control, as requested by other agencies,” JJ Goicoechea, state veterinarian and deputy administrator for the NDA’s animal industry division, said in an emailed statement. “We are also standing by in case an emergency declaration is made or funding becomes available and will work with the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] to coordinate and assist affected ranchers.”
Ranchers like Stewart, who saw most of their grazing areas burnt by the fire, face tough decisions about how to operate in the coming months and even years. They might have to decide whether to sell some of their cattle or find empty grazing areas in other parts of the state.
Through the federal government, some ranchers might be eligible for compensation if their cattle were engulfed or injured during the fire, or if the fire burnt their grazing areas. At this point, there is no estimate for how many livestock or cattle had been killed during the fire…
The vast majority of the fire burned in sensitive habitat for sage grouse, land managers have said, and the blaze is likely to be a setback for sustaining habitat for the bird. For years, federal regulators have been working on a conservation framework to boost dwindling populations of the bird and keep it off the endangered species list, which would devastate rural economies.
Sage grouse rely on the presence of sagebrush in the Great Basin for protection and food.
“When we have these anthropogenic fires, based largely around the fact that we’ve introduced cheatgrass, it becomes a tremendous challenge for the bird to reproduce,” said Brian Rutledge, the vice president and director of the Audubon Society’s Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative.
The concern, among many, is that wildfire will put more pressure on sage grouse populations, which could land the bird on the endangered species list when the federal government revisits the issue. It’s an outcome that many Westerners have worked to avoid for decades. A listing would mean the curtailment of many activities in rural counties, including mining and ranching.
The impact on sage grouse could depend, in part, on how the fire burned. Since the burn was not continuous — there was some land untouched — there might be some habitat within the 292 mile radius of the burn that is preserved, land mangers said. Although land managers are still assessing the damage, the fire has likely altered mule deer habitat and other wildlife.
At a public meeting in Winnemucca on Wednesday evening, first responders said all of the parties affected by the fire, including ranchers and wildlife managers, will meet in the coming weeks to discuss how to rehabilitate the range and damaged ecosystems. They stressed they would take a collaborative process and undertake projects likely to include seeding and building new fences.
“This is going to be a very, very large project,” said Donovan Walker, a fire management officer.
But restoration can be difficult and expensive. Fleishman said cheatgrass seeds are so resilient it is hard to prevent the invasive species from growing and crowding out space for native grass.
“Restoration is possible in small areas with a lot of labor and financial resources,” she said.
Thad Heater, a former state biologist with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Services, said there have been some effective sagebrush restoration efforts. He pointed to areas burned by the Soda Fire, a devastating blaze that eliminated valuable sagebrush habitat in Idaho.
“It’s really bounced back well,” said Heater, who also works with grouse through as the coordinator of the Sage Grouse Initiative. “You can get the habitat responses for wildlife by working together.”
According to land managers, the Martin Fire is the largest single fire that has burned in Nevada. The Southern Nevada Complex, a devastating burn in the Spring Mountains near Las Vegas in 2005, burned more acres but comprised multiple fires, whereas the Martin Fire was one blaze.
In limited circumstances and on smaller scales, fires can benefit the range. Yet in the case of massive human-caused fires such as the Martin Fire, nearly everyone — ranchers, ecologists and land managers — agree they often destabilize the ecosystem and the activities that rely on it.
“It’s becoming a determining factor of whether the primary stewards of land — ranchers — can succeed or not,” said Rutledge, who works on sagebrush ecosystems with the Audubon Society. “It’s a human challenge as well as an avian challenge and an ecosystem challenge.”
As of Wednesday, the more than 600 personnel that responded to the Martin Fire had contained about 60 percent of the blaze. Nearly all of the western, eastern and southern edges of the fire have been blunted, but there is a possibility that islands within the boundaries could flare up.
Three smaller fires are burning in Eastern Nevada near the Utah border.
Across the country, Gardetto said this season has been above average for wildfires, and it’s part of a broader trend that land managers have observed across the West over the last decade.
“What we do know is that over the last 10 and 20 years, we are seeing longer fire seasons, we are seeing more extreme fire behavior” due to cheatgrass and hotter temperatures, she said.
As wildfires start to weaken around the state, the Colorado State Forest Service has offered up way you can help the areas affected by the new burn scars: replanting trees.
The CSFS-administered Restoring Colorado Forests Fund uses donations to purchase seedlings and plant them in areas affected by wildfires, floods or other disasters. Every $2 donation purchases one seedling. The seedlings are grown at the CSFS Nursery in Fort Collins.
The fund, which was established in 2003, has been used to provide more than 122,000 trees.
“When a destructive wildfire hits, the first priority is protecting human life and property,” said Mike Lester, state forester and CSFS director. “But for the long-term recovery of our communities and forests, planting trees provides an important means to help stabilize soils, protect water supplies and restore the landscape.”
In the past decade, this fund has been used to replant areas in the burn scars of the High Park Fire west of Fort Collins, the Waldo Canyon Fire near Colorado Springs and the Weber Fire near Durango.
The loss of trees and other vegetation in those areas led to runoff and erosion, which resulted in damaged hillsides, polluted waterways, highway closures and road damage.
This year, the Girl Scouts of Colorado made a donation that helped the Restoring Colorado’s Forests Fund provide 7,500 seedling trees for reforestation efforts.
“We will forever be grateful for the seedlings we received because of the generosity of people giving to the Restoring Colorado’s Forests Fund,” said James Williams, a Larimer County landowner…
Nearly a third of the 47 wildfires actively burning across the country are in Colorado, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The state’s 15 actively-burning wildfires don’t include previously-extinguished fires.
The Lake Christine Fire has burned over 6,800 acres, and it has many people hoping for rain. But, once the fire is put out, the rain could cause an entirely new problem. If a storm rolls through the area, it could wash all of the ash and debris into the waterways, and water providers in Mesa County could feel the ripple effect.
If rain washes the remains of the Lake Christine Fire into the water, it could float to the Grand Valley. “That fire could result in being deposited into the Frying Pan, and then the Roaring Fork, and then eventually the Colorado River,” said Dale Tooker, the manager of Clifton Water District.
Filtering the ash out of the water can be a difficult process. “Ash can be removed relatively easily, it’s the odor and the color… It does smell like liquid smoke if it’s at high concentrations,” said Tooker.
Clifton Water District depends on their advanced treatment plant process and take daily samples of the river to test it. If worse comes to worse, there are other options. “We would actually step in and supplement their water supply and provide their customers with domestic water,” said Joseph Burtard, the external affairs manager for Ute Water Conservancy District.
When it comes to our water, it all leads back to one common goal. “Anticipating the ash coming down, we’re preparing for that, we’re meeting, we’re having those discussions now. And so that when it does happen, our customers both Clifton Water and Ute Water customers don’t really even realize that it’s happening,” said Burtard.
Domestic water providers are hosting a water workshop for HOA’s on July 19. Those with Ute Water Conservancy District said it’s a chance for people to ask questions about fires near our watersheds, among other topics. RSVP by visiting http://www.utewater.org.