Ron Stewart
Caretakers of the sage grouse conservation effort are anxiously looking to the western horizons in Box Elder County where prime habitat could still go up in flame.
Certainly with funding, we're scrambling, scrambling to see what funding we have and how we can stretch it as far as we can. —Rory Reynolds, head of the Watershed Restoration Program

SALT LAKE CITY — Even before this season's wildfires have been snuffed out, an army of wildlife biologists, rangeland specialists and geologists are on the ground in Utah determining what to do for the land and the animal populations it supports.

This much is known: There are not enough dollars in existing state budgets to pay for reseeding the scarred land, and Utah lawmakers could face tough decisions if they want to get the soil to spring to life with new vegetation.

And unlike the fires of 2007 in Utah, the wildfires that have scorched more than 360,000 acres have happened mostly on state-owned land, which puts the rehabilitation price tag more squarely on the shoulders of Utah's money managers.

"Certainly with funding, we're scrambling, scrambling to see what funding we have and how we can stretch it as far as we can," said Rory Reynolds, head of the Watershed Restoration Program in Utah's Department of Natural Resources.

"We've already had fires that far exceed what funding we have."

Less obvious is the impact the fires will have on animal populations. Many animal populations may not return to where they lived for 50 years or more, and some already limited deer hunts in prime hunting spots outside of Delta may be cancelled this hunting season.

The state's big game coordinator, Anis Aoude, said it will be fall before the full impact of the fires is tallied among Utah's elk and deer populations. By then, wildlife biologists will be counting the fawn-to-doe ratio, particularly with an eye to see how the young animals fared.

Reynolds said he believes many of the fawns were wiped out in a prime mule deer management area near Oak City in the fire that burned outside of Delta.

"The fire was large enough there is no doubt that we have lost a lot of deer," he said. "A lot of wildlife suffered through that. You lose a lot with the fawns that are small, and in a fire that large, they cannot stay ahead of it."

Aoude said it is too early to speculate about deer population losses, and said the greater long-term concern is if there has been loss of winter range. Those ranges take time to replenish from a large fire and herds will move out, and stay out for some time.

"Sometimes the fires can be more beneficial than destructive such as in higher elevations where it improves forage in the long term," he said. "But if it happens on winter range, it takes a long time to recover."

What's nagging at everybody is this: The fire season is just getting started.

"The fire season is still young and could go into the fall," Aoude said. "I'm sure there will be a lot more fires."

Caretakers of the sage grouse conservation effort — millions of dollars have been spent so far — are anxiously looking to the western horizons in Box Elder County where prime habitat could still go up in flame. If that happens, it will set the state back years and risk having the species listed on the Endangered Species List.

Jason Robinson, the upland game coordinator the state Division of Wildlife Resources, said biologists have already been coordinating with fire agencies, letting responders known of critical areas that need fire protection.

The sage grouse only feeds on sage brush in the winter and some species take 30 to 50 years to grow. Robinson suspects in the vast western ranges of Box Elder County, some of the brush out there is 100 years old, and tinder-dry.

"That is one of our biggest concerns as the fire season moves forward," he said. "Sometimes these fires can get very large and burn very quickly so a large amount of habitat can be lost in a short amount time."

A big fire that burns up the sage brush will clear the path for cheat grass to take over — which Robinson said offers little benefit to anyone — man or animal.

Like Aoude, Robinson said some fires in certain areas can provide a beneficial clearing of vegetation that helps to "set the clock" on an ecoysystem by burning up old trees and allowing new, young trees to replace them.

So far, he said he has not seen too much of an impact to upland species such as rabbits, quail, sage grouse or pheasants, but months remain in a record-setting dry and hot year in which much of the state has been federally declared a natural disaster area.

The reseeding of vegetation will have to wait until fall, or early winter, and the toll on many of the animals won't be known for months. In contrast, once the last flame was doused at the Seeley Fire, state geologists were probing fragile soils decimated by the flames. With no vegetation to hold them in place, the debris flows will come tumbling down, and indeed have already, sliding across a state highway in Huntington Canyon.

"That is why we want to keep people from camping along the creek," said Richard Giraud, a senior geologist with the Utah Geological Survey, adding that intense rain a few miles away can unleash a thunderously fast-moving debris flow.

"You don't have a chance to get out of harms way."

Giraud said that the danger is particularly high this year because of so many charred, steep slopes from the early fire season that are likely to get pelted from late summer thunderstorms.

"We started to get concerned before the Fourth of July because it was unusual for us to have this many burned acres this early in the season. Having that this early just gives us a higher probability of getting hit by a thunderstorm. We have not had these type of conditions for awhile."

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