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Blacker pastures: Badger Fire brings near-term losses, long-term gains for South Hills ranchers
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Blacker pastures: Badger Fire brings near-term losses, long-term gains for South Hills ranchers

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OAKLEY — Doug Pickett had a long day Friday, Sept. 18.

It was the sixth day of the Badger Fire, which had grown to about 35,000 acres the day before. Pickett had to get into the rugged South Hills terrain on horseback to round up about 500 of his cattle that hadn’t yet made their way out of the forest on their own. The fire was almost nipping at his heels before sunrise.

“When we started, we knew the fire was right on our back,” Pickett said.

The rancher and two men riding with him trekked north for 12 hours along the deep, rugged canyon on the East Fork of Dry Creek. They watched smoke billow over the ridges to the west. As the men traveled, the fire raged in Rock Creek Canyon just a few miles west, surging across a whopping 13 or so miles during the day.

As dusk came, the dehydrated crew were tired and ready to finish the long, stressful journey. But as they neared their destination on the South Hills’ northern edge, they saw more flames. The fire had outrun them.

“It was just kind of spooky to see flames at the beginning, when we were moving away from the flames, and then when we were coming down the flames were in front of us,” Pickett said.

The fire didn’t end up trapping them, and Pickett said they could have ridden through it if they had to, but the fire’s wind-aided run down Rock Creek made the day nerve wracking.

No one, firefighter or rancher, got significantly hurt in the 90,000-acre Badger Fire, which burned through nearly a third of the South Hills.

But the fire will impact the ranchers whose animals graze in the forest. The Badger Fire directly and indirectly killed roughly 110 cattle and sheep. Ranchers say they were relatively lucky, but the next few years, before livestock are allowed back on the range, will be tough.

Ranchers deal with fallout from Badger Fire

Doug Pickett (left) and his son Porter sort bulls Dec. 22 during a snow flurry at their ranch near Oakley. 

What the fire did

The Badger Fire burned through grazing allotments used by ranchers John Noh, Eugene Matthews and the Picketts.

Noh, a sheep rancher, said he was the most fortunate of the three. The fire affected two of his grazing allotments, but he didn’t lose a single sheep.

Don Pickett, Doug’s brother, had to get 3,500 sheep out of the South Hills while the fire burned. At one point, he and his animals got trapped behind a wall of fire 30 to 40 feet wide.

“They had to push the animals through the flames,” Doug Pickett said. “Some of them got singed a little bit and their feet got burned a little bit, but they were able to use their dogs to make them go and they basically forced them through the fire.”

Once the sheep dogs herded about a hundred sheep through the wall of fire, the other animals followed. The first sheep stomped out the burn, so the later waves didn’t actually have to run through flames.

Don Pickett lost about 50 sheep due to post-fire foot infections.

Noh didn’t have any of his sheep too close the fire. The Picketts said the timing could hardly have been better for them, since they’d grazed from north to south — they basically grazed during the summer exactly where the fire burned this September.

Rancher Eugene Matthews had worse luck. He had 1,500 head — 750 pairs — of cattle in the South Hills, and a lot of them were grazing right next to where the fire started. He’d moved his cows there just a few days before. Some of his cows died in the fire itself, and others burned their feet — they died more slowly because of their foot injuries. Matthews said it’s sad that some animals suffered instead of dying quickly. There wasn’t any way to find the injured animals right after the burn in the rugged country though.

“You raised those cows, you raised every one of them from a baby,” he said. “It’s gut-wrenching to see that.”

The timing could hardly have been worse, from Matthews’ perspective.

Matthews lost 66 head. That represents about $100,000, he said. Some of his younger animals got sick from all the smoke, too.

Ranchers deal with fallout from Badger Fire

Cows meander around Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020, at the Theee Bar Cattle Ranch near Oakley.

What happens now

Losing livestock is one impact of the fire, but it’s the post fire problems that will have a greater impact on ranchers’ operations.

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“The coming year is where it’ll be problematic,” Noh said.

Where the fire burned, ranchers will have to keep their livestock off the ground for at least two growing seasons. That means at earliest, sheep and cattle will return to the burn area in the fall of 2022. The return date depends on how quickly the land bounces back. The U.S. Forest Service allows livestock back on the land based on how quickly the plants recover, so it could take more than the minimum two growing seasons in some areas where the fire burned severely.

U.S. Forest Service Range Management Specialist Chris Gee said the areas where the Badger Fire reburned the Cave Canyon burn scar, the land should recover more quickly.

Doug Pickett said the Badger Fire burned up about 60% of his South Hills grazing allotments. That means he has to find somewhere else to put roughly 300 cows of his 900 South Hills cattle for a couple of years or so. Matthews estimated the fire burned about half of his allotments, displacing half of his animals for a few years. Noh said maybe a quarter or a third of his allotments burned.

For the most part, ranchers will have to keep their livestock on their private ground, or rent ground, until the land recovers.

The future

Ranchers said they have two main concerns in the wake of the fire. First, invasive species such as cheatgrass could expand now, which would degrade rangelands. That generally happens after fires, and biologists say the lower elevation areas may never return to what they once were. The severity of cheatgrass expansion will largely depend on the success of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management reseeding efforts.

Noh said there are signs of impending drought, which could mean the land recovers more slowly.

Infrastructure is the other big concern.

Gee said the fire burned at least 25 miles of fencing on Forest Service ground — and it costs about $6,000 to $10,000 to replace a mile of fence. In areas where the fire burned hot, the fencing wire loses its temper. You can’t reuse it because it’s brittle and will break. A burn incinerates or damages wooden fence posts, and a hot area can destroy metal posts.

The fire destroyed or damaged $80,000 worth of water troughs and water pipelines, Gee estimates.

Gee’s annual budget — for the South Hills, Albion Mountains, Sublett Range, Raft River Range and Black Pine Mountains — is $35,000.

“Funding is an enormous problem,” Gee said.

Even if there was enough money available to replace all the range infrastructure right now, it’d still take a long time for ranchers and the Forest Service to get the work done. (Typically the Forest Service pays for the materials and ranchers pay for construction.)

You can’t do the work in the winter.

“It’s going to be impossible to get the fencing done in two growing seasons,” Gee said. “I think we’re going to have problems with fencing for years to come.”

Gee’s focused on replacing the water infrastructure first. You can control cattle well by water placement — they won’t stray too far from a drinking hole. At the same time, you need fencing to prevent the cattle from wandering up into the higher elevation areas where it’s cooler and the grass is better.

Overall, however, ranchers and Gee said the fire’s a positive from a grazing perspective. A big positive.

“Two years from now it’ll be terrific,” Matthews said.

Noh said that the fire, “has the potential to be nothing but positive long term” for ranchers.

Grass will come back quickly, and with woody shrubs and trees gone, there’ll be more of it. Livestock will fare much better post-fire than many wildlife species. Elk will likely do well for the same reason cattle will — because of all the fresh grass.

“It’s bad for the first year,” Don Pickett said, “but really good after the grass has a chance to get established and have a chance to become even more beautiful than it was before the fire.”

Noh said that ranchers are resilient. His family has been ranching in the South Hills for over a century and the other two families also have deep roots in the forest.

“It’ll cause them some sleepless nights and cause some grief in the short-term, but it won’t slow them down,” Noh said. “They’ve been through fires, they’ve been through floods, they’ve been through droughts, high markets, low markets, cougars, coyotes. They’ve seen all of it. … They will figure out a way to come through this and come through it better.”

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