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South Hills recovering from Badger Fire: 'Naked' burned land beginning to get green
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South Hills recovering from Badger Fire: 'Naked' burned land beginning to get green

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BURLEY — Green shoots are starting to pop up on the 90,190 acres of South Hills forest and grazing land blackened in the Badger Fire.

Restoration and seeding efforts started following the fire that was sparked Sept. 12 are paying off.

“I think the way it looks will be a shocker for folks,” said District Ranger Randy Thompson, with the US Forest Service Minidoka Ranger District.

The burned areas will appear “naked,” despite the sprouts already coming up, but within two years it will begin to fill in, he said.

Thompson said Forest Service members cried and wrung their hands after the fire. Then they made plans. Now it is time to work, he said.

The fire provides opportunities for change and new growth.

“Visually it will be totally different,” Thompson said. “But, it will be good too.”

Too early to tell

The wind-driven fire jumped around and burned hot. From 40,000 feet up, what was left looks like a black mosaic pattern across the forest, Thompson said. Erosion will occur, he said, but the extent is still unknown and the area will be under continual evaluation.

Restoration continues after South Hills Badger Fire

Scott Soletti, U.S. Forest Service district wildlife biologist, watches restoration efforts underway Nov. 10 in the South Hills near Oakley. The Badger Fire has dramatically changed the land, but those changes aren't all bad. 'Fire is going to regenerate (upper elevation) plant communities,' Soletti says. 'It’s part of that natural ecological succession.'

Thompson said after the fire was extinguished, an emergency response was launched to remove hazards like burned trees. Over the fall and winter, restoration efforts began, including mastication of juniper skeletons, which will help newly laid seed take root. To date, the Forest Service has performed broadcast seeding on 700 acres, and through a partnership with other organizations seeded 4,500 acres in sagebrush.

“It’s still too early to tell how much of the seeding was successful,” Thompson said. “There’s still a lot of snow up there.”

A week ago coming up through Rock Creek, he said, they still couldn’t get past Diamond Field Jack because of the snowpack.

The Forest Service would like to reseed about 15,000 acres with a natural seed mix native to the area. Seeding has been hampered, Thompson said, due to lack of funding and a shortage of seed. The need for the seed simply outweighed what nurseries had in stock.

The agency is working to secure more funding but they will wait for the optimal time to plant to ensure the best results, Thompson said.

“Timing is very important,” he said.

There was some wildlife loss but they don’t know yet how the animals fared over the winter.

Ungulates

A South Hills bull moose roams around a prescribed burn area in September. Moose could experience a short-term shortage of food due to the Badger Fire, but in the long term the blaze could be beneficial for the aspen and willows the animals eat. 

“We know they moved their winter range,” he said.

Most of the roads have not suffered any washouts from the fire damage so far this spring, but the risk is still there and some roads may be difficult to travel due to packed ash.

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“People shouldn’t tear through the muddy roads, not only for their safety but to help keep the roads in place,” Thompson said.

The Forest Service will concentrate on restoring burned areas for a couple of years, and any extra road damage may not get addressed right away.

Last year, a lot of trails were torn up by off-road vehicles.

All trails and campgrounds in the area will remain closed until they can be accessed by a specialist for the risk of falling rock.

One campground in the Rock Creek area is marked with barriers and will be unavailable.

The Badger Fire

Scott Soletti walks past the wood remnants of the bridge at the Harrington Fork picnic area. 

“My biggest concern is not getting anyone hurt,” Thompson said. “There is always a little risk but I want to make sure everyone is safe.”

The Forest Service has an interactive webpage with information on the Badger Fire area.

“I think we’re in pretty good shape,” he said. “This summer will be tough but we are ready to move forward. There is opportunity here to do some things that needed done and work with our partners.”

The fire will give the agency an opportunity to tackle some projects like the Rock Creek Corridor Plan and upgrading Father and Sons campground, an area the fire burned around.

Heather Tiel-Nelson, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management, which had 13,557 acres burned during the fire, said the agency aerially seeded the entire acreage with a variety of forbs, grasses and brush seeds. After the seeding, they pulled a heavy anchor chain across about 3,000 acres of accessible terrain to ensure the seed was covered and give it the best chance for growth.

This spring BLM staff also planted 15,000 Wyoming big sagebrush seedlings on about 200 acres.

“It is really too early to tell the success of the rehab efforts so far,” Tiel Nelson, wrote in an email. “Monitoring of the rehabilitation efforts is anticipated to begin this summer.”

The BLM has three grazing allotments that burned and were seeded. Seeded areas will be rested from grazing until the agency’s stabilization and restoration objectives are met, she said.

The Forest Service has 13 grazing allotments for cattle, horses, sheep and goats in the burn area.

Thompson said they have purchased the materials to replace grazing allotment infrastructure lost during the fire including water troughs and fencing, but it hasn’t been put in place yet.

“They (the grazing permittees) have been great to work with along with all of our partners,” Thompson said.

Other agencies, organizations and clubs have stepped up to help evaluate, provide funding and work on restoration projects, he said. And it couldn’t be done without everyone working as a team.

The Badger Fire changes the South Hills

This multi-part series on the Badger Fire explores its effects on South Hills wildlife, biology and ecology. See the whole series here.

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