Nearly 1,000 acres of the Boise River Wildlife Management Area in the Foothills north and east of Boise burned Thursday in the Table Rock fire — damaging vegetation that is critical to the winter survival of deer and elk. The fire burned 2,500 acres in all.
The Boise River WMA, which extends east of Table Rock to Lucky Peak Lake and includes other segments north and east of the lake, has 47,000 total acres of land with various ownership. All of that land is managed by Idaho Fish and Game as winter range for deer and elk.
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Much of the burned area was full of invasive weeds like cheatgrass and medusahead because it had burned before. But the eastern edge of the fire hit some of the sagebrush and riparian areas (vegetation along bodies of water) that deer and elk seek for cover and food.
Krista Muller, the wildlife biologist for the BRWMA, expects the animals to fare OK this winter but rehabbing the land to take time.
“It’ll look pretty rough for a while — a couple of years,” she said.
She only has one assistant and one tractor, so she’s limited in how much rehab work she can do. And much of the burned area is unsuitable for a tractor.
She expects to lean heavily on volunteers for chores like hand-seeding the land in December, preferably after it snows.
“Most of the north-facing slopes do pretty well with that,” Muller said. “It’s the south-facing slopes that always have a hard time. In March, we’ll hand-plant seedlings on some of those areas. Most of that will be done by hand by volunteers.”
The lower Foothills that burned weren’t as good for the deer and elk as the upper areas, which have more of the sagebrush and bitterbrush the animals need. That’s because the lower hills have burned before, Muller said.
“It’ll be black probably until next spring,” she said. “... In the spring, it will look OK — but most of that will be the invasives that come back. The whole idea is as soon as you have a fire you need to rehab it as quickly as possible.”
The Boise River WMA hosts up to 8,000 deer and 1,500 elk in the winter, depending on the severity of the winter.
“I’m not quite sure yet how it’s going to affect wildlife using the area,” Muller said. “The area wasn’t great for cover but it had enough food and it had some really good riparian areas in it. I’ve got a picture of a (game trail) the animals had been using ... and it looks like a highway, so they might not use it for a little while. The riparian areas, as long as they’re not hit too heavily, will come back on their own. The animals will be really happy this spring because they’ll eat all that cheatgrass and medusahead when it greens up.”
Ridge to Rivers on Thursday closed the Homestead trail, which runs along the eastern boundary of the fire and is mostly inside the WMA. Muller is asking hikers and bikers to stay off the trail at least until Monday morning, in part because there’s still danger of flare-ups.
The beginning of the Homestead trail has been converted into an emergency access to the new Harris North development that is being built in the Foothills. Fire crews used that road to access the Foothills, then bulldozed their way uphill toward the fire to stop it, Muller said. The fire wrapped around Harris North, to the north and east.
Hikers and bikers straying onto those bulldozer trails is one of the concerns as recreationists return to the area.
“The department hasn’t decided what we’re going to do yet,” Muller said. “My main concern is erosion and having people go off the main road, creating additional trails and fragmenting the landscape.”