Federal land managers and the local chapter of The Nature Conservancy are starting to gauge the effectiveness of seeding efforts undertaken last fall to revegetate the area burned by the Sharps Fire last August.
Reportedly ignited by a man shooting at exploding targets, the fire burned more than 100 square miles in the Little Wood River drainage east of Hailey. Included were about 24,000 acres of BLM land, 20,000 acres of private land, 11,000 acres on the Sawtooth National Forest and 10,000 acres of state land.
Last fall, a coordinated effort among federal and state agencies aerially seeded native grasses and forbs on the burned area. The BLM seeded about 10,000 acres of public land west of the Little Wood River and between the river and Muldoon Creek. Over the winter, about 7,000 acres were seeded with sagebrush. In addition, grass and forb seeds were applied via manual drill-seeding on 433 acres of severely burned land close to roads.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has authority to work with private landowners, seeded about 10 species of mostly native plants on 1,500 acres of private land and 1,500 acres of state land.
The Pioneers Alliance, an organization composed of management agencies, conservation organizations and ranchers, met Thursday at Carey City Hall to hear updates on those efforts.
Danelle Nance, fire ecologist with the BLM’s Shoshone Field Office, said the main purposes of the rehabilitation work are to stabilize soils, thereby reducing erosion, and inhibit spread of invasive plants. Nance said the agencies are now in a monitoring phase to assess plant growth before deciding whether any more seeding is needed or whether seedlings will be planted to benefit wildlife.
“We’ll just keep tabs on this and see how everything progresses as the year goes on,” she said.
Charles Sandford, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Twin Falls office, said it’s still too early in the season to see what’s coming up on most of the burned area. He said small flowering plants will become visible in May and early June, grass in June and shrubs such as sagebrush in the fall.
In an interview last summer, Tess O’Sullivan, conservation manager for the Idaho office of The Nature Conservancy, said the type of sagebrush in the area is called mountain big sagebrush, which grows in higher-elevation, relatively wet locations. She said that type of sagebrush is more resilient to fire but can take a long time to regrow, even decades to fully re-establish itself.
Conservation easements on private land held by The Nature Conservancy and other entities cover about a fifth of the land within the perimeter of the fire.
Nance said that so far, little erosion has occurred in the southern part of the burned area where the snow has melted. Blaine County Commissioner Angenie McCleary said the county Road and Bridge Department will be monitoring roads for erosion as the snow melts.
Sandford said monitors will also be looking for the emergence of invasive species such as cheatgrass.
Gilbert Moreno, a range technician with the Ketchum Ranger District, said Sawtooth National Forest land on the northern end of the burned area did not burn as severely as did the area to the south.
Moreno said the district has put in a request for 10,000 sagebrush and bitterbrush seedlings to be planted this fall. He said the district hopes to plant another 5,000 seedlings each year for two years after that.
He said the Forest Service plans to restore the Fisher Creek-Porcupine Creek loop trail this summer, and youth workers with the Idaho Conservation Corps will rehabilitate other trails.
Erik Kriwox, rangeland management specialist with the BLM’s Shoshone Field Office, said naturally revegetating areas will probably be reopened to livestock grazing in another year and seeded areas will probably be opened in fall 2020.
Brian Bean, co-owner of Lava Lake Land & Livestock, expressed concerns that with 2,500 elk tags available in the Pioneer elk hunting zone, parts of the burned area could be overrun with vehicles this fall.
“I think the biggest issue is going to be folks who think they can take their vehicles anywhere,” Bean said. “I think there’s really big-time risk that you’re going to get severe surface damage and road creation this fall.”
Bean suggested that Idaho Department of Fish and Game officers enforce off-road restrictions as well as game violations.
The Nature Conservancy’s O’Sullivan, who was chairing the meeting, said she would request a meeting with Fish and Game to discuss that. Blaine County Commissioner Angenie McCleary said she was told by Sheriff Steve Harkins that deputies would patrol the area to the extent that funding and staff time allow.
In November, several agencies and organizations contributed to building more than 100 woody-debris structures to imitate the effects of beaver dams and thereby help with erosion control and riparian health along 5 miles of Baugh Creek, Sheep Creek and Hailey Creek in the Little Wood River watershed. Keri York, Big Wood River project manager for Trout Unlimited, said in an interview that the groups will do another such project this fall, probably in September, on tributary streams of the Little Wood.