Why bitterbrush, sagebrush are plants of choice for Table Rock rehab
With spring recreation in full swing, we decided to check on rehab efforts and trail availability in the areas that burned last summer in the Table Rock and Mile Marker 14 fires.
Table Rock rehab update
Martha Brabec, the city of Boise’s Foothills restoration specialist, estimates 50 percent of the bitterbrush and sagebrush planted last fall survived the winter. That’s well ahead of the typical 20-25 percent rate — but the plants aren’t established yet.
“We still have a big hurdle with the summer drought,” she said.
The city added 3,500 shrubs to the Table Rock area last fall. Much of the planting was done by 458 volunteers who participated in nine events.
The next wave of volunteer opportunities will involve hand-pulling weeds this spring (dates TBA). This fall, another round of shrubs will be added. Five thousand bitterbrush and sagebrush plants are being grown for Table Rock from locally collected seed.
Some of the volunteers were from schools as the city tries to turn the fire damage into an opportunity to teach fire ecology.
“There’s all this research that indicates participating in habitat restoration is actually restorative for your mind,” said Sara Arkle, the Foothills and open space senior manager for Boise Parks and Recreation.
The Table Rock Fire burned 2,500 acres. The city only owns 164 of those acres but has worked with neighboring property owners and managers on the rehab effort. Other owners include Idaho Fish and Game (900 acres), Idaho Department of Lands (300), Harris Ranch Wildlife Mitigation Association and private citizens.
Thanks largely to a $100,000 donation from Zoo Boise to improve the wildlife habitat at Table Rock, the city has worked with Fish and Game and the Department of Lands to make improvements well beyond the borders of city land. The Department of Lands couldn’t put money into rehab, so the city provided materials in exchange for using the department’s equipment, Arkle said. Fish and Game donated plants that the city wouldn’t otherwise have been able to get last fall in exchange for supplies the city had. The city also contracted with the Idaho Botanical Garden to grow forbs (wildflowers) from locally collected seed that will be added to the Table Rock area.
Work planned this year includes drill-seeding for native grasses and planting the Botanical Garden’s forbs.
“We could have spent $100,000 on 164 acres and made this really awesome island of habitat,” Arkle said. “It just wouldn’t have done us any good to create an island of habitat. We’re building a cohesive and collaborative approach with the property owners around us so that we’re all helping each other out and doing the same strategies so we’re all doing what we can to leverage existing funds to improve habitat across the burn scar.”
The plantings are most noticeable along the Tram trail, which begins across the street from Warm Springs Golf Course. Bitterbrush seedlings are protected by white baskets because they are particularly attractive to wildlife. Many sagebrush seedlings are visible, too — often in the “fertile islands” created by charred bushes. That area was planted last fall because native plants already fared well there.
The large plateau that sits below Table Rock and is visible during the second half of a hike to the city landmark hasn’t been planted yet. Instead, it was treated with herbicide to kill invasive weeds. Those weeds fuel fires and make it difficult for native plants to thrive.
“Our first kind of triage was to combat the weeds coming up because we’re trying to break the cycle ... and introduce native plants back into that already monoculture of weeds,” Arkle said.
The hillside should turn green, then gold, this year because of the cheatgrass, Brabec said.
“Over time, we hope that there will be a shrub overstory and perennial bunch grasses with wildflowers to create a nice forage for wildlife,” Brabec said. “We’ll see the (shrub) skeletons for a while, but the skeletons will give rise to new shrubs.”
Table Rock trails open (mostly)
The Table Rock trails were subject to a Ridge to Rivers pilot program of seasonal closures this winter to limit the use of muddy trails. The trails were closed for much of the winter because of the precipitation but re-opened on a regular basis this month. They’re still subject to closures when wet (as they were Monday).
“There were still people that didn’t respect the closure but we didn’t get any negative pushback,” Arkle said. “It doesn’t take that many people to make an impact, but it’s better than it was in previous years.”
The program worked in part because the staff at Warm Springs Golf Course (near the Tram trail) and Idaho State Historical Society (near the Old Pen trails) helped change the signs. It’s unclear whether the program will be used elsewhere next winter.
“It was successful as a pilot program,” Arkle said. “We haven’t really talked about expanding it at this point. If we did, it would be very thoughtful expansion, and only in those areas where you see a lot of high traffic like Table Rock and soils that hold moisture.”
Daily updates are posted on the Boise Foothills Trail Conditions Facebook page (try setting a notification for the posts) and open/closed signs indicate the status at trailhead gates.
“We’ll always be providing people with alternative routes,” Arkle said. “That’s really the value of the Facebook page. You’ve got to go there before you get in your car. Once you get in your car and you’re at the trailhead and you notice that it’s closed, man, it’s really hard to be respectful.”
WMA rehab update
About 4,350 acres of the Boise River Wildlife Management Area burned in the two fires. That represents 9 percent of the 47,000-acre WMA, which covers much of the eastern Boise Foothills from Table Rock continuing past Lucky Peak Lake and provides winter range for deer, elk and pronghorn. Fish and Game owns 2,518 burned acres; the rest of the WMA damage is on land administered by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service or Army Corps of Engineers and managed for wildlife by Fish and Game.
“The biggest thing that we lost was the sagebrush (near the WMA office) and the bitterbrush that was 60 years old,” said Krista Biorn, the regional wildlife biologist who manages the WMA. “It was really great habitat. It was very diverse. ... It burned so hot that we lost everything. It’s like a moonscape.”
Among the rehab projects already completed: Fish and Game and BLM collaborated to do aerial seeding and “straw bombing” on some of their land. The straw helps prevent erosion. The seeding was a mixture of more than a half-dozen plants, including bitterbrush and sagebrush (key plants for big game). A BLM contract crew will plant up to 100,000 shrubs per year for five years, beginning this year. Fish and Game used herbicide on 1,200 acres of its land — about 1,000 from the Mile Marker 14 Fire and 200 near Table Rock — to try to limit the growth of invasive weeds. The area treated with herbicide will be seeded early next winter and hand-planted with seedlings in spring 2018.
Fish and Game has a volunteer planting opportunity available Saturday as part of Mile Marker 14 Fire rehab. Volunteers will be planting sagebrush and bitterbrush seedlings. Contact Michael Young at email@example.com for more information or to sign up. The WMA also plans to have some volunteer days to help with maintenance such as fixing fences so animals don’t get caught in them.
WMA trails closed
The Boise River WMA remains closed to public access even though most of the snow has melted.
Deer are at their most vulnerable during late winter and early spring, which makes limiting conflict with humans a critical element to their survival, Biorn said.
Most of the animals that have died this winter have been fawns and older deer, she said. But if the WMA closure is lifted before the animals move back into the mountains, the adults “on the cusp of survival” will be at grave risk, she said.
“Those animals that are on the tipping point — even though they’re eating, their bodies can’t take in as much protein as they normally would later in the season,” she said. “Their bodies kind of shut down so they don’t have to eat as much. ... We lose more animals from the beginning of March to the end of April than we do throughout the whole rest of winter.”
The closure, which affects the Homestead, Cobb, West Highland Valley, East Highland Valley, Lucky Peak and Ridge Road trails on the Ridge to Rivers map, mostly was respected when the hills were covered with snow, Idaho Fish and Game officials say. But since spring-like weather has arrived, hikers and bikers have started ignoring the closure signs.
Violators usually receive a warning the first time. But they can be cited by any full-time Fish and Game staff member for a misdemeanor for violating a closure. The fine is $25 to $1,000 at a judge’s discretion. Commonly, the fine is $25 — but the total expense is nearly $200 after court costs, said Charlie Justus, the regional conservation officer for the Southwest Region.
“Spring fever is here,” Justus said. “People want to get out. The problem is we still have a large number of deer and elk that are hanging out low on the wildlife area. The next couple weeks still are critical for the fawns.”
Fish and Game doesn’t have an estimate for when the closure will be lifted. The animals usually arrive on the WMA around Halloween and leave from early April to early May.
“We’re not telling people when the WMA is going to re-open,” Biorn said. “We’re going to let the animals decide that.”
When the closure is lifted, the burn-area closures from the Mile Marker 14 and Table Rock fires will remain in place. The Homestead, Cobb, West Highland Valley and Lucky Peak trails will be available this year. That allows hikers and bikers to ascend from Harris Ranch to Lucky Peak. However, the East Highland Valley trail and the Fish and Game trails along Idaho 21 will be closed. Vehicles won’t be allowed to drive to Lucky Peak, at least initially, and it’s still unclear whether the Intermountain Bird Observatory atop Lucky Peak will be able to open for the season, Biorn said.