Habitat in flames — How the Forest Service is fighting to save big game with fire | SteamboatToday.com

Habitat in flames — How the Forest Service is fighting to save big game with fire

Liz Forster

In the past

Short-term solutions can no longer combat long-standing environmental problems, and issues of big game population and fuel management are no exception for the U.S. Forest Service.

Since before people lived in the Yampa Valley, big game, such as elk and deer, have roamed the valley floor and the mountains above. As settlers moved west in the 19th century and established towns, like Steamboat Springs, these animals were increasingly pressured out of their vast habitats into smaller and smaller strips of land.

And with the shrinkage of their habitats, the density of their populations has skyrocketed. Big game are more stressed to survive, particularly during the winter, when they must expend additional energy in order to combat cold temperatures, move through deep snow to forage and function with limited fat stores.

"In the last 100 years or so, the Steamboat area has grown for agriculture, the town and the ski resort," said Melissa Dressen, a wildlife biologist for the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest. "With valley bottom now dominated by hay and urban development starting along the urban fringe area comes an effect on the wildlife in and around there."

Simultaneously, forest fire conditions have amplified.

Mountain pine beetles have infected and killed lodgepole pines, leaving decaying and drying wood. Massive droughts in the early 2000s compromised the trees' immune systems, allowing pine beetles to flourish and causing more trees to die. And finally, without periodic, small fires that naturally occur in healthy forests to spur regeneration, mountain shrub has quickly matured.

Recommended Stories For You

These factors have contributed to the accumulation of a solid mass of fuel on the forest floor and loosely tied and very combustible fuels in the dense canopy. Such a fuel combination and pattern of monofuels created the ideal environment for fires burning at very high temperatures, which readily carry across landscapes.

Additionally, mature mountain shrubs are now "clubbed," meaning they consist of hard, woody branches. With more clubbed, taller shrubs and fewer small shrubs containing the nutritious, palatable tender growth, forage in the winter has dwindled, and carry capacities of forest areas has decreased.

"If we hold them (big game) in these thin bands of public land, they need better forage," Dressen said. "They can't sustain on what is left there since they need young buds that are palatable."

As a result of all these factors, big game animals have to travel farther and more frequently to find food, and these extended travels have more often forced them into interactions with humans on the urban interface, private lands and areas of human traffic.

Whether from a distance, or face-to-face with a snowshoer or a car, these interactions increase stress, accelerate the animals' heart rates and require them to expend additional energy.

"A lot of people don't realize that even recreational activities are detrimental to wildlife because the animals are just standing still or they don't see the animals hiding behind the trees," said Jeff Yost, terrestrial biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. "Either way, their stress levels and heart rates are high, forcing them to use energy they need to conserve in the winter."

These conditions have snowballed into an overall decrease in reproductive fitness, which, in turn, has led to higher rates of winterkill and abortions.

The Forest Service and CPW has attempted in the past to address these issues on a small scale.

On the wildlife side, they implemented voluntary closures of recreation areas that were a quarter mile or less from critical winter range areas, which generally lie at the edges of the National Forests, where snow is not as deep and forage is available.

Since their implementation more than 10 years ago, the closures have been met with success in some areas and ignored in others, despite numerous press releases and the posting of signs. This left big game exposed to snowmobilers, snowshoers and other recreationalists.

With regard to the fire issue, firefighters have initiated controlled burns, and private land owners, such as Storm Mountain Ranch and Alpine Mountain Ranch, have completed hazardous fuel reduction projects of their own.

Finally, in February 2013, the Forest Service, in conjunction with CPW, initiated the Steamboat Front Hazardous Fuels Reduction Project to aggressively combat this compilation of environmental issues.

Developing a plan

The project began with the initial scoping letter in February 2013, which announced the project and asked for public input. From there, the project cycled through proposed action letters, public comment and objection periods and extensive environmental analysis studies.

After determining the project would have no significant impact on environmental systems in the project area, the Forest Service released the most recent draft decision in June. With the closure of the final objection period Wednesday, the Forest Service and CPW are now one step away from signing the final proposal and starting treatment.

The project would implement four treatment methods, which span a 24,759-acre analysis area selected with regard to the Wildland Urban Interface, geography and big game locations and concentrations.

These methods include:

● Mastication (Mx), 602 acres: using machinery to shred or chew mountain shrub vegetation

● Prescribed Burning and Mastication (Rx/Mx), 4,380 acres

● Lodgepole pine removal, 927 acres: silvicultural treatments including salvage harvest, cutting, piling and burning, and cutting and felling

● Legal closure of 11,792 acres of critical winter range areas from Dec. 1 through April 15

The legal closure of the critical winter range areas directly promotes the dispersal of big game through winter range areas, providing them with more land area, per-capita. The fuels treatments serves more of a dual-purpose.

"The fuels part of this project is to compliment the wildlife part," said Sam Duerksen, fire zone management officer for Medicine-Bow National Forest. "By removing some of the incredibly hazardous fuel from the interface, we're removing one more hazard to the land, firefighters and valley community.

"We are also changing the vegetation type for the elk more like a real fire would so that we can give the vegetation that has been hammered by high concentrations of elk a chance to start over."

These vegetation changes would come from the mastication and prescribed burning techniques, which alter fuel continuity without removing fuels and the vertical arrangement of fuels.

"A lot of studies have been done on fuels management that say you can't change the weather or topography, you can only really manipulate fuel," Duerksen said. "Fuel is the one thing we can alter to our advantage."

Past successes and partnerships

The Forest Service has implemented projects like this across the country, and the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest Service successfully completed one early this past spring at Indian Run State Wildlife Area in western Routt County south of Hayden.

The third annual prescribed burning project encompassed 800 acres of Indian Run with the same dual-benefit goals as the Steamboat Front project: to reduce fuel loading and increase forage quality for deer and elk wintering in the area and decrease potential for human-big game interactions.

Just four and a half months after the prescribed burns, members of the Forest Service and CPW have already noticed desirable changes in vegetation and wildlife.

"In my mind, though, saving the big game is part of the political pressure, but really, when I write reports, I'm looking at all wildlife species that allow the big game to be there in the first place," Dressen said. "Wildflowers are coming up where, before, it was just a thick mat of sage brush and a large monoculture, and we now have insects and butterflies, birds, small mammals and, of course, big game."

Over the past seven years, Storm Mountain Ranch's private fuel hazard reduction projects have eliminated mainly pine beetle-affected fuels and falling tree hazards concentrated along roads, near homes and in other places fuels could create problems pending another forest fire or blowdown.

"As a result, we made a pretty significant impact on the safety of the areas that were accessible enough for us to remove wood from the heavily traveled areas out to the forest boundary in some cases," said Dan Bell, Storm Mountain Ranch manager.

Both Storm Mountain Ranch and Alpine Mountain Ranch border Forest Service-proposed treatment areas and submitted comments on the Steamboat Front Project. Despite the potential short-term disturbances to the ranches due to the proximity of the project to their properties, ranch managers acknowledged the greater importance of this partnership in maintaining the safety of the area and its residents.

"Our main interest in the Steamboat Front project is the benefit of the fuels reduction, because we are surrounded by pine beetle-damaged forest and are vulnerable in Walton Creek Canyon," Bell said. "This is a situation where there is a lot of fuel near an area that is both populated and fairly inaccessible. By us being able to provide access to those areas, we get the added benefit of fuels reduction as a willing partner."

A need for compromise

Much like other environmental projects around the world, this project, Dressen explained, is one of compromise on the side of both wildlife and the Steamboat community.

"We have to think about compromising to maintain an elk and big game population that is viable," Dressen said. "This project is the first step in being proactive and aggressive in maintaining long-term big game populations."

For the project's goal — enhancing long-term population sustainability of big game — to succeed, the Forest Service inevitably needed to address the long-standing voluntary winter range closure, despite potential backlash from recreationalists.

This legal closure would enable the Forest Service to "more effectively manage the winter range … and reduce conflicts between wildlife and people during the closure period," according to the June Draft Decision Notice.

"Closures are getting critical," Yost said.

Again, projects of this nature are ones of compromise, and the terms of those compromises are met with varying degrees of agreement.

During the original objection period in 2013, Alpine Mountain Ranch questioned the winter range closure from the Steamboat Ski Area south to U.S. Highway 40-Rabbit Ears, specifically, the zone north of Pine Springs Gulch. In that comment, Kathy Zick Cain, the ranch's development project manager, proposed the area be open for dispersed winter recreation.

But as the Forest Service continued with development of its projected plan, Alpine Mountain Ranch has come to agree with the winter closures.

"As a wildlife preserve, we have over 250 head of elk on our property," Cain said. "The winter closures are actually a good thing for us."

Although Storm Mountain Ranch had not brought up this issue in previous commenting periods and generally supports winter closures, it submitted an objection to the June Draft Decision Notice. In it, Bell argued that some of the winter range closure areas in and around their ranch receive little to no recreational use in the winter.

"We don't feel like the use is high enough in some areas for the closure to have any real benefits," Bell said. "There is very limited access, and a lot of the winter range is already on private grounds, so I don't see the need for a legal closure."

When this final objection period closes, the Forest Service will meet with the objectors, including Storm Mountain Ranch, to flesh out one last compromise before signing the final decision.

From there, the Forest Service will implement treatment plans throughout the Steamboat front with hopes of safer, more manageable fire conditions, wildlife regeneration as bountiful as that at Indian Run and a big-game population that will last for years to come.

For more information on the project, visit fs.usda.gov/project/?project=30090.

Timeline

Feb. 2013:

Scoping Letter

Aug. 2013:

Proposed Action Letter

Sept. 2013:

Opportunity to comment

Jan. 2014:

Proposed Action Letter 2

Jan. 2014:

Opportunity to comment 2

2014:

Resource reports and

analysis, including soils, wildlife, aquatics, scenery, and other reports

Feb. 2015:

Environmental Assessment Report

Feb. 2015:

Draft Decision Notice

Feb. 2015:

Opportunity to object

March 2015:

Objection period cancelled

June 2015:

Environmental Assessment Report 2

June 2015:

Draft Decision Notice 2

June 7, 2015:

Opportunity to object