Controlled burn to help elk

Division of Wildlife uses fire to improve habitat

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— Crews from the Colorado Division of Wildlife successfully executed a controlled burn this week to improve elk habitat on almost 300 acres on the southwest flank of Blacktail Mountain.

Despite extreme wildfire danger around most of the state, the conditions in Northwest Colorado are reasonably favorable for controlled burns, DOW officer Mike Middleton said Thursday. He said the DOW always approaches wildlife habitat burns cautiously.

"We're always nervous," Middleton said, "and the news about the big fire near Bailey this week made us more nervous."

Wednesday's fire was set about 15 miles south of Steamboat on a mountainside overlooking Stage-coach Reservoir. It was completed Thursday.

Middleton, who is also a veteran member of the Steamboat Springs Fire Department, said a fire line was in place around the targeted area of the burn before it was ignited. In some places, the fire line was formed by an old fence line. A bulldozer was used to cut a fresh line around the balance of the land.

Middleton has extensive experience with wildfire through his work with the fire department. The DOW crews working on Blacktail this week were also able to draw on the expertise of retired BLM fire boss Jim Andersen, who was hired to work on the burn.

"We didn't have to worry about the northern and eastern exposures," Middleton said. "The northern sides (of small draws) were still muddy."

The crews were concerned about Yellowjacket Pass to the west toward County Road 14. Fortunately, the prevailing winds were blowing from west to east, Middleton said.

The burn was carried out with the help of grant funding from the Upper Yampa Habitat Partnership, Middleton said.

The fire was intended to burn back three kinds of shrubs that serve as winter forage for elk. When the snow depth gets to 18 inches, the gambel oak, serviceberry and bitter brush are the only food sources that protrude from the snow. When the plants become overly mature, they are too tall even for elk, Middleton explained.

The plants regenerate with new growth after they are burned, enhancing grazing for the approximately 350 elk that winter on the south side of the mountain.

Given a choice, the elk will browse first on the brittle brush and second on serviceberry. They seem to find the oak the least palatable, Middleton said.

Ironically, the past winter was an easy one for elk and that made it difficult to start the fire in some spots, Middleton said. He added there was so little snow cover on the south side of Blacktail last winter that the elk were able to graze heavily on the grass. That eliminated some of the fuel the DOW crew needed to spread its fire. When the crew returned on Thursday to burn a few isolated areas, the relative humidity made it impossible to get the fire to spread.

Crews attempting a burn in Moffat County on Thursday encountered a similar humidity problem, Middleton said, and their burn was not as successful.

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