RIRIE — Local wildlife managers are preparing for war. It’s going to last a long time. The outcome is uncertain.
And the stakes couldn’t be higher.
On a bench above the deep canyons that dissect the Tex Creek Wildlife Management Area, Ryan Walker and Matt Pieron stop their pickup truck to pluck a thin strand of grass from the edge of the road. It’s bone-dry, thin and only a foot long. It comes out of the earth without any effort.
To the average observer, there isn’t anything threatening about this pathetic wisp. But Walker and Pieron see a monster.
Pieron brushes a finger through the small seed pods at the top of the plant. They’re empty. The tiny seeds have blown in the wind or stuck to the fur of animals before dropping onto empty, fertile ground burned by the Henry’s Creek Fire.
The little plant is cheatgrass. It’s native to Europe, northern Africa and southern Asia. It invaded America the same year the Civil War started. And in the 155 years since, it’s spread relentlessly to every state in the nation.
If it takes hold of the places where the Henry’s Creek Fire burned, Walker and Pieron said, it could fuel massive fires every three to five years. That’s what happened in southwestern Idaho when cheatgrass choked out native grasses, leafy plants and sagebrush, they said, and it could happen here too.
And given that there are 53,000 acres of burned ground in the area, the potential problems are innumerable. In addition to the threat posed by cheatgrass, managers expect a substantial number of mule deer will die this winter. They worry elk could become a problem in neighboring communities or farmers’ fields.
‘A parking lot’
Walker is the habitat biologist at Tex Creek, and Pieron is coordinator of the Idaho Mule Deer Initiative. Both work as wildlife managers for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, and both are developing a strategy to deal with the wide-ranging effects of the Henry’s Creek Fire, which consumed two-thirds of the 34,000-acre wildlife management area.
Not all fires are bad for the ecosystem, but this one could be.
Areas such as Tex Creek have species that have adapted to fire, they explained last week, such as the small aspen groves that dot the eastern Idaho highlands, often nestling on steep slopes just below the hilltops.
Those groves burned like kindling during the Henry’s Creek Fire. But wait and see what happens next year, Walker said. New aspen suckers will spring up so thick that you won’t be able to walk through them.
After fires in similar areas, Walker said, many managers have reported that plants they hadn’t seen in decades suddenly reappeared. The seeds had long laid dormant in the soil, waiting for nearby established plants to be wiped out so they could get enough water and nutrients to live. That could happen in Tex Creek too, he said.
But the vegetation evolved to deal with small fires that don’t burn too hot, and leave large areas of the ground unscorched; a “mosaic.”
Henry’s Creek was different. It burned hot, covered a massive area and destroyed everything it touched.
Standing on a bare and blackened hillside, Walker recalled hiking down into Deer Canyon before the fire, winding his way through waist-high sagebrush and bitterbrush.
“Now it’s a parking lot,” he said, motioning down the featureless hillside.
Cheatgrass has been present in the eastern Idaho highlands for a long time, but well-established native plants have kept it in check.
“Just like any other weed, it’s sitting there waiting for a disturbance,” Walker said. “We just had a big disturbance.”
Cheatgrass is sometimes called June grass. That’s because it sprouts very early and grows very quickly, setting shallow roots that quickly suck up almost all the moisture in the ground. But within just a few weeks, it goes to seed and dies. And the dead grass sits there, waiting for a spark to ignite a fast-moving blaze.
Native grasses such as blue bunchgrass, which was prevalent in the area before the fire, are much different. Their roots stretch down many feet into the soil. They allow early rains and snowmelt to sink deep into the ground, from which they slowly suck up the moisture over the course of the summer. Blue bunchgrass stays green and continues growing for months after rains have stopped, Walker said.
Unlike blue bunchgrass, cheatgrass isn’t good food for deer, elk or cattle. Animals that eat cheatgrass develop mouth sores that can cause major health problems.
If cheatgrass becomes widely established in the burned area, that giant spurt of June growth will suck up all of the snowmelt and early rains, leaving the deeper layers of soil too dry to support native plants.
That’s how you wind up with a completely changed ecosystem, Walker said, and if there are vast fields filled with nothing but dead cheatgrass for much of the year, wildfires will become a much more common occurrence. Other scientific sources indicate cheatgrass commonly shortens the fire cycle from between 60 and 100 years to only three or five years.
And these new fires won’t be the mosaic fires that help keep the ecosystem healthy but total burn-offs similar to the Henry’s Creek Fire. That would change not only the ecosystem but the lives of farmers and ranchers in the eastern Idaho highlands, Walker said.
A bad surprise
Big game animals travel from throughout a vast area to winter in Tex Creek. Animals collared there during the winter have been tracked traveling to Caribou Mountain, Grey’s Lake and deep into the Palisades Range during the summer, Pieron said.
The Tex Creek Wildlife Management Area was created by the state because it provides vital winter range for thousands of mule deer, elk and moose. A century ago, they would have continued down into the valley bottom, but the cities of Idaho Falls and Ammon now block their path.
Typically, about 4,000 mule deer, 4,000 elk and a few hundred moose spend the winter in Tex Creek. Since those populations have been rising in recent years, Pieron said it’s more likely that there will be 5,000 deer and elk each arriving in the next few months.
They’re in for a bad surprise. Most of the resources are gone.
The juniper they use to get shelter from colds winds are ash. The sagebrush and bitterbrush which are the mule deer’s winter food source went up in smoke.
While moose and elk are more likely to keep wandering in search of food, mule deer behave differently.
Walker said when they arrive and find the charred ground, they will likely say to themselves: “OK. This is where I’m going to die.”
Pieron said the unique behaviors of each species will cause different problems. With elk the main concern is that they will move down into subdivisions bordering the foothills or begin feeding on farmers’ winter wheat crops.
With mule deer, managers expect a large die-off.
That leaves wildlife managers with some hard decisions to make.
“We have to make decisions about the long-term health of this deer herd,” Pieron said.
Pieron said the key consideration is balancing the number of deer in the herd with what the Tex Creek ecosystem can now support. Instead of reducing the number of mule deer hunting tags, it might make sense to increase the number in order to make sure that the few remaining resources for the wintering herd aren’t exhausted.
Those tough choices will go on for years. For example, mule deer generally eat only the new-growth tips of mature sagebrush and bitterbrush, but they strip and kill young seedlings. The more deer there are, the longer it will take for the ecosystem to heal. And the longer it takes for sagebrush and bitterbrush to reestablish, the fewer deer the ecosystem will be able to support each winter and the greater the chances of cheatgrass gaining a foothold.
To feed or not to feed
One of the most controversial issues is likely to be whether wildlife managers should undertake emergency feeding this winter to save mule deer from perishing. The problem is that feeding isn’t very effective, Pieron said.
Mule deer — like elk, cattle and sheep — are ruminants. Ruminants feed on plants that are high in cellulose, the main component of paper. At a molecular level, cellulose is similar to the starch which is found in potatoes: Both are long chains of sugar molecules.
But there’s a key difference between cellulose and starch. Animals produce enzymes that are able to break up starch, releasing sugar that they can use for energy. But no animal produces enzymes that can break the links in cellulose, which is why you can eat potatoes but not paper.
Ruminants have evolved a trick to get around this problem: They enlist microorganisms for help.
In their four-chambered stomachs live bacteria which are capable of breaking down cellulose into sugar. If it weren’t for those bacteria, deer couldn’t live off of grass and sagebrush any more than humans could.
And the makeup of the bacterial ecosystem in a mule deer’s gut changes with the seasons, Pieron said. During summer, the bacteria in their system are fine-tuned for eating grasses and the tender leaves of flowering plants. In winter, their diet and gut bacteria change, and they begin eating tougher leaves and small twigs, mostly from sagebrush and bitterbrush.
Give a mule deer corn or alfalfa in the winter, Pieron said, and it’s not uncommon for it to drop dead of starvation with a full belly.
Walker said it’s important for people to understand how long this effort will take. Don’t expect Tex Creek to look like it used to in a year or two, he said. That will take as much as 20 years. Wildlife managers’ task, he said, is to speed the recovery process up as much as they can.
“This is about whether my daughter can come here to hunt in 15 years,” Walker said.