Saturday, December 21, 2002
Steamboat Springs Anyone who has scratched his or her way through the Routt Divide Blowdown knows it isn't the most hospitable place.
Uprooted trees blown over by 120 mph winds in October 1997 north of Steamboat Springs are stacked head high in some places, making life for the hiking human arduous.
But for some of the native creatures of the Routt National Forest, the five-mile-wide, 30-mile-long path of toppled timber, around 4 million trees, is proven prime habitat.
The U.S. Forest Service recently concluded a three-year study of birds in the blowdown. It showed the disturbance improved the habitat for several species of birds.
Thirty-six different species of birds were found in the blowdown, most of which took residence there. Eight of them were new species.
"The kind of birds that were out there was substantially different in the blowdown," Forest Service District Wildlife Biologist Robert Skorkowsky said. "The reality is that some of these species are disturbance dependent."
Skorkowsky headed the study. He and a crew hiked to 49 research plots on the Routt National Forest, 29 were in the blowdown and 20 were in thick spruce-fir stands, to look for birds.
Skorkowsky and the crew visited each site four times a year for three years. They spent 10 minutes at each plot documenting all of the birds they saw and heard.
There was an extensive training course for the study so that Skorkowsky and his crew could identify all of the birds in the forest by sight and sound.
"I had to get to know all the songs by heart," he said.
The crew found the birds living in the blowdown were generally different than the types of birds living in the thick forest.
Take the mountain bluebird, for example. Skorkowsky explained the bird does better in open spaces, mainly because of its hunting habits. When the blowdown happened, it created open space, which became habitat for the mountain bluebird. Subsequently, the population of the bird went up.
Skorkowsky said the effect of the blowdown disturbance on the birds could be thought of in a similar way as a wildfire disturbance. Wildfire creates a healthy mosaic of different types of vegetation on the forest. Essentially, vegetation that flourishes after fire appears in regrowth areas, changing tree stands into grassy areas in some cases.
The blowdown created an array of different types of bird habitats in the Routt National Forest, giving greater opportunities for some species of birds to flourish.
Along with studying bird habitat in the blowdown, Skorkowsky also studied the effect salvage logging operations had on birds. Of the 29 research plots in the blowdown, 14 were in an area that logging happened sometime during the study.
"Essentially, (logging) did one thing. It lowered the density of birds living in that area," Skorkowsky said.
Removing downed timber and knocking down remaining trees were the causes, he said.
"The ability of that habitat to support more birds was diminished," Skorkowsky said.
Though the number of birds recorded in salvage logging areas was lower, the diversity of the birds remained consistent to what was found in the pristine areas of the blowdown.
"That's really different to what they found in a lot of other studies. What we did there on the ground has an impact, but it didn't impact it enough to make it so birds couldn't live there," Skorkowsky said.
Loggers were directed to leave some trees and snags standing, under the pretense that it would maintain bird habitat.
"By incorporating those types of decisions on other projects, we can reduce some of the impacts," Skorkowsky said.