Keeping Faith with Mother Nature

DOE, INL and partners manage desert habitat in face of fire every summer

Published online: Oct 16, 2020 Articles Paul Menser
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Fire is a fact of life on the Upper Snake River Plain, home to an abundance of wildlife as well as the Idaho National Laboratory Site. With so much at stake, the situation calls for caution and careful planning.

Officials from INL, the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) entered the summer of 2020 with the Sheep Fire still fresh in their minds. Reported on the afternoon of July 22, 2019, the lightning-caused fire was the largest in INL’s 70-year history. It took four days to bring under control and in the end burned an estimated 112,106 acres of vegetation. The fire left its mark on 21 types of soils, nine vegetation classes, and numerous species, including greater sage grouse, designated as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need by the state of Idaho.

Although such an event can never be called a “gift,” one thing the Sheep Fire did accomplish was to bring into focus how DOE, its Idaho contractors, and other government agencies could more effectively protect vegetation and animal habitat on the 890-square-mile Site.

“The last 10 years have brought changes in ecological conditions and the regulatory environment,” said Amy Forman of Veolia Nuclear Solutions-Federal Services, the company that manages the INL Environmental Surveillance, Education and Research (ESER) program for DOE’s Idaho Operations Office. While firefighting and habitat preservation have always been a team effort, new agreements have brought more stakeholders to the table and made broader resources available.

As spring 2020 approached, DOE used a helicopter to seed 25,000 acres of burned land identified as having good potential for providing seasonal habitat to sage grouse and other species that need sagebrush to survive. This was possible because of a 2014 agreement that DOE signed with USFWS, mandating proactive habitat protection. The Idaho Office of Species Conservation and the USFWS bought about 8,000 pounds of bulk sagebrush seed from the BLM seed warehouse. BLM provided an additional 1,600 pounds of seed at no cost through an excess property transfer.

Fire containment lines constructed with bulldozers were necessary in 2019 for firefighters to contain the Sheep Fire safely and effectively. Reseeding of those lines began in May 2020, after precautions were taken to preserve cultural resources. The highest priority areas were recontoured and planted with a native grass mix. Planting eliminated the need for more visits to the containment lines and limited traffic to land that had already been disturbed. Minimizing the disturbance also helped revegetation by limiting soil compaction and the risk of accidentally introducing nonnative species.

The time between 2012’s Midway Fire and the Sheep Fire gave the ESER program’s environmental scientists and wildlife biologists a window they could use to make detailed vegetation maps of the area for DOE. These up-to-date, accurate maps helped as Veolia’s scientists assessed the burn area and made plans for habitat restoration.

Approximately 80% of the area burned by the Sheep Fire was dominated by native species and was characterized as in fair-to-good ecological condition before the fire occurred. The remaining 20% of the burned area was dominated by cheatgrass or other nonnative species, a sign of poor condition.

Before the Jefferson Fire of 2010, cheatgrass was documented to be present across the INL Site, but at densities that weren’t considered a threat to post-fire recovery of sagebrush habitat. As it has become more widespread and abundant, however, it has become an important consideration in post-fire vegetation management.

Once cheatgrass comes to an area, it spreads fast. A winter annual, by spring its seedlings are rooted while most native vegetation is only getting started. This makes it capable of outcompeting native species for water and nutrients. It only takes a few plants to produce enough seeds to overwhelm native perennials, and as it dries out by mid-June it makes fires more likely to occur earlier in the season. In some parts of the West, fire-return intervals have gone from 60 to 110 years in sagebrush-dominated systems to less than five years under cheatgrass dominance. 

With every recurring fire, cheatgrass becomes more dominant and expands its range.

The Sheep Fire of 2019 demonstrated that the growing number of agency stakeholders involved has benefited not only the habitat but fire containment efforts. 

“We have a lot more agency stakeholders at the table, and these agencies have in-depth experience,” said Betsy Holmes, a physical scientist with DOE. “We’ve had a lot of fantastic input, knowledge and insight from these stakeholder agencies.”

Regardless of what happens, firefighting efforts and habitat management go hand in hand, said INL Fire Chief Eric Gosswiller. “INL is vulnerable to large fires every season,” he said. “We’re going to do the same seasonal planning we always have, including prioritizing post-fire recovery activities.” 

Click here to read more of the November issue.

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