Pete Zimowsky: Wildfires change sagebrush communities

Southeast Oregon looks much different than it did a few years ago.

pzimowsky@idahostatesman.comApril 25, 2013 

0425 out zimocol

Bare ground and a bleached skull show how dry the desert is where wildfires burned.

PETE ZIMOWSKY — pzimowsky@idahostatesman.com

The sterile landscape of the Southeast Oregon high desert stretched for one, five and 10 miles, and as far as the eye could see.

There was nothing to the horizon but swirling dust and the skeletons of blackened sagebrush sticking out of the powdery soil.

It was so disheartening after seeing this country in past springs, when it was a lush and green desert environment.

There are patches of new grass coming up from dauntless reseeding efforts of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. A few wildflowers are popping out of the burned soil, but for the most part, the landscape is a dull brown going right up to a blue sky.

My wife and I spent four days last week out in our favorite spring haunt in the high desert between Burns Junction, Ore., and McDermott, Nev.

The area is so vast and remote that it's like a sagebrush sea that stretches all the way to the horizon.

It's fun to drive back roads and hike side canyons that few people see, except for local ranchers.

But this year, in addition to exploring terrain and looking for sage grouse, we were checking out the effects of last summer's massive wildfires.

Fires burned more than 1,100 square miles in Harney and Malheur counties and devastated prime sagebrush steppe, stream riparian areas and hidden brushy canyons.

Sagebrush is important for so many critters, from sage grouse to antelope to mice, which birds of prey depend on.

Sage grouse need sagebrush for all parts of their life cycle, from nesting and raising young to surviving winter and using the plants to hide from predators.

What's going to happen to the iconic western bird? A lot of folks are worried. It can take more than 25 years for sagebrush to come back to full growth after being seeded.

As you drive U.S. 95 south from Burns Junction over Blue Mountain Pass, the blackened landscape leaves you with a sadness in your heart.

We go sage grouse watching on several leks (mating grounds) each spring and keep records of the birds and their habitat. We've been doing it for a number of years.

This year was hard to take with each step on the talcum-powder landscape. Where we hiked through waist-deep seas of sagebrush in the past, now there is bare soil.

Where we camped near flowing lush creeks in the past, now there are dry, scorched indentations in the earth. They were alive with critters from frogs to wetland birds. Now they are so dry, tiny dust devils blow right in the creek beds.

Riparian habitat (brushy areas) along the creeks has totally vanished for miles.

Watering holes are totally dry. Where's the spring runoff? Nowhere. It's a very dry year.

Bleached-out cattle bones litter some of the dried-out reservoirs where the animals apparently tried to seek shelter from wildfires.

A bighorn ram's skull is set in a patch of dust and rocks with no vegetation all the way to the top of a rock plateau. What happened to the magnificent animal?

Burned out fence lines stretch for miles. One reservoir, which had willows, cattails and other vegetation last year, was a sterile bowl.

Besides our concern for wildlife, we couldn't help thinking about the hardships facing ranchers who depend on and care for the range. I wondered how federal and state biologists and range managers feel about the huge task ahead for rehabilitating the land.

Nature tends to come back. But how long will it take in a land that gets only 8 to 10 inches of rain a year?

We did see hope. Valiant wildland firefighters managed to save small and large plots of sagebrush in the fire area. Although they may seem insignificant in the total blackened landscape, they do make a difference. Just walk through them in an early morning.

Where there is sage, there is life. We saw antelope, bighorn sheep, coyotes, sage grouse, larks, raptors, bees and butterflies in the brushy areas.

There is a stark difference between the fire-nuked land and the patches of brush.

Walking across the barren landscape was quiet and dead, with only the sound of the wind.

As you make your way through a plot of sagebrush, suddenly you smell the aroma of phlox and the land becomes alive with the sounds of birds. You see bighorn tracks.

There is hope in a tiny lark hopping along the ground, picking up insects.

Pete Zimowsky: 377-6445, Twitter: @Zimosoutdoors

Statesman outdoor writers Pete Zimowsky and Roger Phillips alternate columns on Thursday. Look for Roger next week.

Idaho Statesman is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service