Mike Courtney gave Interior Secretary Sally Jewell a tutorial on sage grouse, cheatgrass and fire last October as he guided her on a short hike in the South Hills near Twin Falls.
After gathering scientists in Boise in November, Jewell issued a secretarial order in January requiring Interior officials to make stopping fire in critical sagebrush habitat the top resource priority for the Bureau of Land Management. The directive requires the BLM to send firefighting money, equipment and personnel to 15 districts in five states that have 38 million acres of critical sagebrush habitat, even at the expense of other parts of BLM’s 262 million acres in 11 states.
Courtney has since been appointed manager of one of these, the Twin Falls District, where Jewell saw firsthand the aftermath of the 2007 Murphy Complex Fire, which burned 600,000 acres of prime sage grouse habitat south of Twin Falls. Now Courtney is overseeing efforts to ensure that doesn’t happen again, especially in the 50,000-acre island of unbroken habitat on the Nevada border at Browns Bench and China Mountain.
“The intent is to protect the remaining habitat out there and to protect the seedlings out there so they can grow back to benefit grouse,” Courtney said.
His work is like that of thousands of others across the West seeking to conserve the sage grouse, which is in the middle of an annual mating season marked by the mesmerizing dance of the males. The bird’s numbers have dropped from millions at the time of settlement to several hundred thousand today. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said in 2010 that listing of sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act was warranted, but precluded by higher priority listing actions.
Critics sued, and a judge gave the agency until September to decide whether the sage grouse no longer needs protection under the federal act. A provision passed last year by Congress further complicates this process: The government can’t use federal funds to fully list the sage grouse or invoke the full restrictive powers of the law. Congress, ranchers, state leaders and others are working to avert a listing, which could limit grazing, energy exploration, road and home-building and other development in grouse habitat.
A VIEW OF THE PAST
As Jewell looked north from China Mountain last October, she saw tens of thousands of acres of continuous cheatgrass cured brown by the previous summer’s sun. This invasive grass dries earlier than native grasses and has changed the frequency of fire from once every 30 years to five times in the past 12 years for parts of the area.
This cycle, Courtney explained to Jewell, has converted millions of acres of lush sagebrush mixed with wildflowers and bunchgrass that supported sage grouse and other desert creatures into a tinderbox where fire dominates. Even with the best of care, areas rehabilitated after a burn take years, even decades, to recover.
“To see, just (since) the year 2000, how much connected sage grouse and mule deer habitat there was here and how fragmented that has become just because of a handful of fires over the last decade is pretty darn scary,” Jewell said on her hike with Courtney.
Under Jewell’s order, Courtney is pre-positioning fire equipment in sagebrush country, which is up to 40 miles from the nearest town. He has plowed to bare dirt 12-foot wide “brown strips” along roads, designed to reduce the spread of fires before firefighters arrive.
Eventually BLM plans to plant native and other non-invasive plants in the strips that will stay green and resist fire long into the summer. Jewell’s plan also calls for expanded efforts to restore habitat damaged by wildfire and to boost the amount of native seeds and plants used for rehabilitation.
FACING THE TRADEOFFS
If agency managers are doing their jobs, changing priorities for money, manpower and equipment will mean other areas get less.
Ron Dunton, assistant BLM director for fire and aviation and the top official at the National Interagency Fire Center, organized the fire science conference in November and now is in charge of making the tough decisions about where to send firefighters and equipment. Protecting lives and property remains the federal agencies’ top priority, but when he’s choosing between different rangelands, he’ll pick sage grouse habitat first.
“We’ve never had a clear natural resource priority before,” Dunton said. “It was left up to the local manager to decide.”
Dunton took $5 million of miscellaneous funds for district managers like Courtney in prime sage grouse country to buy equipment like bulldozer transport trailers to improve response time.
Early in a season, many firefighters are in Alaska. Often, when that fire season ends in June and July, firefighters get to choose where they go next. Not this year.
This year, they’ll go to places like Winnemucca and Vale and other out-of-the-way communities in prime sagebrush country, Dunton said.
“They will not get to pick and choose,” he said. “That’s not going to make people happy.”
The decisions on how the agency spends its money on rehabilitation also won’t make many people happy. Two years ago, when the Pony Fire burned tens of thousands of acres that are important deer and elk winter range south of Boise, scientists said the rangeland was no longer good sage grouse habitat.
That made BLM’ Boise District officials scramble to come up with money and seeds to replant the area. Without that rehabilitation, ranchers would have had to wait even longer to return their livestock to the public range.
The district got the funds then. But under the new priority they might not – because they’ll be competing with districts in prime sage grouse country.
RANCHERS AS FIREFIGHTERS
Rancher Mike Guerry lives in Three Creek southeast of Twin Falls and grazes cattle in the area that burned in the 2007 Murphy Complex fires.
He has watched as the size of fires has grown from hundreds of acres in the 1960s to thousands in the 1970s, tens of thousands in the 1980s and 1990s to hundreds of thousands since 2000.
The cheatgrass invasion has quickened the fire frequency. Warmer winters – allowing the annual grass to grow year round – and hotter summers have changed the ecosystem.
“My winter permit allotment burned five times in 12 years,” Guerry said. “We were off (various allotments) seven to 12 years and it nearly killed us.”
In the past when fire struck, ranchers like Guerry were forced to sit idle and wait for BLM firefighters to arrive. So Guerry became one of the strongest advocates for Rangeland Fire Protection Associations on Browns Bench. These non-profit groups formed by ranchers in cooperation with the Idaho Department of Lands and the BLM have allowed Guerry and other ranchers to get the training and equipment they need to fight fires themselves, effectively and safely.
He’s chairman of the Three Creek RFPA and, like the BLM, it is placing equipment and water tanks out in the sagebrush to be ready when the fires come.
The associations proved their worth the night of July 31, 2012, when lightning started 21 fires across a 60-mile swath of public land from Owyhee County to Lincoln County. That number of starts would have been more than the BLM could handle.
One of those fires grew quickly to 4,000 acres. But Three Creek’s RFPA and the adjoining Saylor Creek RFPA made the difference.
Twenty-four hours later, a 60-mph wind blew through but the crews held the fire in check, Guerry said. When the National Interagency Fire Center decided in 2014 to give the two associations its prestigious Pulaski Award for firefighting, the groups wouldn’t accept unless the Twin Falls and Boise BLM districts were included, too.
“It’s about the partnership,” Guerry said.
HANDICAPPING FIRE SEASON
Much of the Great Basin from northern California and Nevada through Utah and Southern Idaho has suffered a deep drought along with Southern California and the Southwest, where much of its weather comes from. But that doesn’t necessarily mean this fire season will be bad, said Ed Delgado, NIFC head of predictive services. Snowpack and soil moisture are factors, but the key for rangeland is the amount of fine fuels – grasses – that grow in the spring.
“How much rain we get in the spring will determine how much fine fuels we have,” Delgado said. “More rain, more fire.”
For NIFC’s Dunton and Twin Falls’ Courtney, the real test will be when national fire resources get tight. That happens when fires burn across the West – and especially when we get what fire experts call “CNN fires,” the big fires that threaten thousands of homes that have been built deep into the wildlands.
“Sometimes they get so caught up protecting private property,” Guerry said. “It’s a tough call.”
And managers need to be looking beyond simply protecting sagebrush from fire, Dunton said. They have to start looking ahead to try restoration that can break the invasive transformation of the sagebrush steppe ecosystem.
“We’ve got to go after cheatgrass,” Dunton said. “We can’t just spend all our efforts on the suppression side.”