Roger Rosentreter crawled on his knees, picking up clumps of desert sod turned over by seeding drills last fall as crews planted crested wheat grass where the Soda Fire had burned.
Lichens and mosses that make up a hard, stabilizing microbiotic crust had been buried by the pencil-sized tubes that broke through the crust to deposit the seeds.
“They’re still alive,” Rosentreter said on a visit this week to the burned-over rangeland. “But they won’t be for long.”
Rosentreter is a renowned and retired Bureau of Land Management Idaho state botanist and author, whose research in the 1980s first identified the living organisms that make up the crust. He said his former agency did more harm than good using the tractor-pulled drills for rehabilitation of the sage grouse habitat burned in 2015 by the Soda Fire in Owyhee County.
Breaking up the hard, biological crust and turning over the soil allows invasive plants like cheatgrass and medusahead rye to establish and take over, out-competing the grasses and forbs that are critical to sage grouse and other species.
He wrote a critical report after touring three sites where the BLM had drilled and used herbicide in its $14 million effort last fall to jump-start a $67 million restoration program following the fire that burned 280,000 acres in Idaho and Oregon. In addition to criticizing the drilling, Rosentreter expressed concerns that herbicide may have killed forbs like mountain dandelion, hawkweed and bighead clover that are critical food for sage grouse.
He said he found the wrong species of sagebrush had been planted and would be rejected as food by the bird, which in 2015 was determined not to warrant listing under the federal Endangered Species Act.
“A lot of the things they’re doing here, they were looking at the number of acres treated rather than the quality of the acres treated,” Rosentreter said. “They could have treated about 15 percent of what they had done and we would have been better off and we would have saved a lot of money.”
A visit this week revealed that burned areas nearby and even the ground between the drill lines showed thick regrowth of native bunchgrasses, forbs and tiny sagebrush plants. The relatively heavy rains and snow since the summer fires helped the previously drought-stricken habitat grow a bed of mostly native plants in the area near Little Squaw Creek off of U.S. 95 southwest of Marsing.
BLM and U.S. Fish and Wildlife managers and biologists working on the restoration program dispute Rosentreter’s characterization of their work, raising doubts that what he saw accurately represents how the rangeland is responding.
“Two or three stops doesn’t tell the story over hundreds of thousands of acres,” said Jason Pyron, sage grouse coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Idaho.
Much of the public land that burned was allowed to grow back naturally, with drills used on just 17 percent of the burned area, said Cindy Fritz, a natural resource specialist with the BLM Boise District.
“It’s too soon to have any opinion on the Soda Fire yet,” Fritz said.
Pyron said the restoration program is occurring in stages, starting last fall with stabilization, seeding and eliminating invasive grasses.
“The use of the (herbicide) treatments is important to get the perennial bunchgrass established,” Pyron said.
As the restoration program progresses, plantings of forbs and sagebrush will follow. Scientists said for sage grouse to survive over the long term, restoration has to be accelerated. Simply allowing the area to recover on its own is not an option for many areas, federal officials said.
“This won’t be habitat for sage grouse until we can establish that sagebrush cover,” Pyron said. “The first few years of forbs is really inconsequential. We need to establish forbs across this landscape, not in small spots.”
U.S. Geological Survey research ecologist Matt Germino, who toured the fire in April with Rosentreter, has been a part of the larger restoration project that grew out of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s sage grouse fire plan in 2015. He is developing an extensive monitoring network of 2,000 sites across the burned area to collect data to determine the effectiveness of restoration efforts.
He was not involved in the decisions about last year’s rehab efforts, but he pointed out it was an emergency situation with little time to make complicated decisions before winter snows.
“These people were dealing with a burned, blackened landscape and uncertainty,” Germino said. “In many cases, you don’t really know what was there before the fire.”
The data Germino’s team is collecting is designed to drive the restoration managers’ decisions. Among the next tough calls will be how soon to allow ranchers to put their livestock back on the public range, and how much grazing to allow.
Rosentreter said the area where the tractor-pulled seed drills were used was thick with bunchgrass, forbs and wild flowers, showing that the rancher had done a good job grazing the area.
Ironically, the BLM could not comment because it is locked in litigation over rancher Ted Blackstock’s grazing permit.
One point all agree on is that the success of the restoration program, which will take years, will depend on adaptive management — being flexible and reacting to changing conditions and information. For Rosentreter, that means considering a lighter touch and more careful choice of seed and shrubs.
“If you see that it’s recovering naturally, you have to adapt and back off,” Rosentreter said.
Facts on the Soda Fire
The Soda Fire began in a hay bale on private land Aug. 10. Fire investigators determined lightning was the cause. It quickly spread in both Idaho and Oregon, burning 280,000 acres of rangeland. It was the largest fire in Idaho in 2015.