Time For Tex

Refuge check three years after wildfire

Published in the January 2020 Issue Published online: Jan 22, 2020 East Idaho Outdoors Kris Millgate
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There’s a midnight shaded raven perched on a sharp ridgeline of twisted basalt. That lava rock is dominated by the same dead color with sparse accents of orange moss and yellow grass. Both the raven and the rock are born of dark hues, but Tex Creek Wildlife Management Area (WMA) is not. 

The refuge protects 34,500 acres of big-game winter range. It’s forestland and grassland that thrives in high-desert color only fading to black when it burns like it did in 2016. Three years after the wildfire, it’s time to check on Tex. 

“We’ve had very good recovery conditions, but given what was out there and how critters use it, it was definitely a challenge,” says Ryan Walker, Idaho Department of Fish and Game regional wildlife biologist. “What those animals depend on in winter died. Bringing back sagebrush is the primary goal of everything we’re doing out there.”


Bottle rockets blackened more than 52,000 acres during the Henry’s Creek fire in August 2016. That included 75% of Tex Creek Wildlife Management Area. It took 10 days to contain. 


Tex Creek is open to the public for hiking, biking, hunting and fishing April through November. It closes to vehicles December 1 so animals migrating in for winter range are undisturbed by traffic. 


The WMA receives an annual average of 14 inches of precipitation. That average is surrounded by dramatic swings to the dry side in most years. To its favor, it has received its annual 14-inches of rainfall every year since the fire. That’s a solid boost to natural growth returns. 


Sagebrush is quick to burn and slow to grow. It fully develops in about two decades. Wildfires whip much of the West’s wild landscape every two to five years. Perennials and aspen are already re-sprouting in Tex, but slow growing sagebrush needs help if it’s going to compete with cheat grass.


Two dozen volunteers can collect about 100 pounds of bulk sagebrush seed in one day. They collect it from a corner of Tex that didn’t burn. It’s cleaned of leaves and twigs and reduced to two pounds of seed. Those seeds grow for one year at a nursery then return to Tex as 200,000 seedlings planted in batches annually. 


Cheat grass had a presence at Tex Creek before the Henry’s Creek fire, but it was manageable. It covered 10 to 15 percent of the land in low-density patches. Now it bleaches its way across the refuge in density patches as high as 70 percent. Scientists are trying to stop its spread with bacteria, chemicals and native plants.


Upland birds, particularly sage grouse and sharp-tailed grouse, use the refuge. The grasslands where grouse strut in spring burned in 2016. That’s why adding more sage and cutting back cheat is so important.


Thousands of deer and elk migrate to Tex Creek when it snows. The refuge is set aside as winter range for big game and is managed by Idaho Department of Fish & Game. The department inherited the land as part of a mitigation agreement when Ririe Reservoir was built for irrigation demand and flood control.


Deer rely on sagebrush more than elk do, but both rely on Tex. The department put out hay for wild herds the winter after the wildfire. It hasn’t put out hay since. The elk population grew from 4,000 in 2013 to 5,500 in 2017 on it’s own.


A single fire in a sagebrush ecosystem isn’t catastrophic. Consecutive fires close together in the same system are devastating. Rehab at Tex continues in an effort to reduce devastation should another fire breathe across the desert landscape.

Outdoor journalist Kris Millgate is based in Idaho where she runs trail and chases trout. Sometimes she even catches them when she doesn’t have a camera, or a kid, on her back. Her first book ‘My Place Among Men’ is available now. See more of her work at www.tightlinemedia.com.

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