On August 27, 2008 a fire burned nearly 14,000 acres of prime sagebrush habitat in central Idaho, including part of The Nature Conservancy’s Silver Creek Preserve. What are the ramifications for the preserve and surrounding public lands? The answer will form the latest chapter in the Conservancy’s 30 years of conservation, restoration and stewardship at the preserve.
Silver Creek is one of the best examples of a high desert, cold spring ecosystem in the western United States. The water conditions nourish an abundance of insects, which in turn support an exceptionally high density of brown and rainbow trout (approximately 6,000 trout per stream mile), and more than 150 species of birds. More than 7,000 people from around the world visit Silver Creek Preserve each year--- to fish, paint, photograph, hike, and bird watch.
The fire started near the preserve and quickly spread southeast. At one point it headed north, jumping the southern border of the Preserve and burning about twenty acres there. The fire at this point was very hot and moving quickly. The ‘old growth’ sagebrush famous in this area (often times higher than the top of your head) burned to the ground. The water birch along Silver Creek also burned, leaving a relatively barren riparian area. The fire continued southeast and when it was finally controlled a few days later, it burned around 14,000 acres of prime sage grouse and upland sagebrush habitat.
Silver Creek’s unique combination of shrub land, riparian forest and wetlands makes the Preserve and surrounding area a haven for wildlife. Utilizing a long-term ecology protection and restoration plan, The Nature Conservancy performs extensive habitat monitoring and restoration work both on the Preserve and on 9500 acres protected by conservation easement in the watershed. The Nature Conservancy’s restoration goal of the burned area is to ‘help it along’ and create an even more robust and diverse plant community.
The largest threats to the system in the fire’s aftermath are erosion and noxious weeds. In order to control weeds, we will spray weeds as they appear. Luckily, weeds tend to establish quickly and because there is currently no over-story, we can easily spot spray the weeds before they establish. Erosion will be more of a challenge as the hillsides adjacent to the Preserve have no vegetative cover and spring runoff will likely wash soil downstream and possibly into the creek. We are working with BLM to install erosion control structures to slow runoff.
Many of the important bunch grasses are already re-growing, even though it has been only six weeks since the fire. We are also going to seed the area with a variety of forbs (a great food source for birds), grasses, and shrubs this fall with the goal of helping a robust vegetative community establish. In addition, next spring we will plant shrubs in the riparian area for both habitat and protection from wind-born sediment. Fires can be rejuvenating and we hope that in a few years this habitat will support an even wider range of birds, insects, plants, and animals.February 11, 2011