Fire in Shrub-steppe Country

Wildfire has been a naturally occurring character of the land since man first lay foot in the West. In dry summer months, when the conditions were right and chance would strike, the spread of fire would seemingly lay waste vast expanses of land. But then, unlike now, the inhabitants of the West were afforded patience, and what in the short term would seem to us like a burnt wasteland was but a brief and welcome rejuvination to the plants and animals whose plentiful numbers would soon regain the newly enriched habitat.

But the fires of the past are unlike those of the present. After decades of cattle's unforgiving influence, much of the land in the West has been altered in such a way that has degraded the forgiving equalibrium of plant and animal communities. Native plant communities are being replaced with non-native and invasives.

Cheatgrass

 

Everyone who has hiked through Western public lands is familiar with cheatgrass. Cheatgrass seed is that obnoxious bur that you've probably picked out of your socks.

But the reason for the spread of cheatgrass is often less known. Disturbance of the soil is the main reason cheat spreads. Natural plant communities and intact soil crusts are nature's best fortification against cheatgrass incursion. But after years of blading roads, ripping cattle water-developements through the land, and the unforgiving pounding hooves of the cattle themselves, cheatgrass has been afforded ample avenues with which it has spread into the heart of our public land.

Cow in cheatgrass

 

These avenues combined with cheat's ability to use the disturbance of fire itself to wipe out native competition and regerminate more quickly and successfully than its native competitors is largely responsible for the contiguous fuels, choked out native communities, and an over-all diminished health of our public lands throughout the West.

The results are staggering. Hotter, larger fires opportunistically spread across the range gaining ignition and momentum on large swaths of dense cheatgrass which patch the land and occupy the interspaces between natives. This results in the reopening and expansion of wounds left robbed of their more fire resistant native communities. The cycle continues as cheat's territory expands and natives' diminishes.

The Aftermath - New Beginnings?
Aftermath

What once would have been a new beginning for native plants and animals is now under the influence of the livestock industry's self-interested objective to maximize forage and the weed seed we have yet to effectively mitigate. With the native vegetation wiped out of areas following fire, critical decisions are made about the constitution of plant communities and seed that is to be spread with agency renabilitation efforts.

Two objectives compete - to restore the native balance of plant communities that have been fire ravaged by utilizing native species seed and give the land the adequate time to refortify robust native populations and soil crusts? Or to use the opportunity of this new blank palette to mazimize utilization by reseeding with non-native plants that provide more productive forage for cattle?

Every so often public lands management agencies such as BLM make the wise decision to reseed with natives. But spreading native seed across burns can only help the condition of the land when given the time to mature into established communities. Generally, BLM is unable or unwilling to hold against the pressures of the livestock industry before buckling and letting out stock after a woefully inadequate couple of years. The result is disturbance of tentative soils and natives. Immature, tender yearlings are quickly munched and the coarse, unappealing weeds reclaim their advantage.

CWG and Cheat

 

Other examples of rehab include the introduction of Crested wheat grass, a non-native plant, that has courted the appeal of grazers as a result of its higher yeilds which support higher stocking rates of cattle on your public land. As a front, BLM has celebrated the plant's alleged fire resistance given the wide interspaces between individual plants. As you can see, disturbances leave CWG's interspaces choked with cheat. Unfortunately, cattle's distaste for CWG is only slightly less than that of cheatgrass itself - leaving the natives munched first. But BLM's stocking rates are determined on biomass, not on bovines' selective palette and what's left of these foreign species once cattle have exhausted tasty natives is inflated fuel levels that will propel hot and fast moving range-fire.

More Grazing?

The altered balance of wildlife communities - the congregated plots of fuel build up around unpalatable weeds resulting from disturbance, Global Warming's hotter and drier conditions, and the livestock industry's stranglehold on public lands management, have coalesced to create an environment of out-of-control range-fire and egregiously out-of balance ecosystems.

Public lands ranchers want the blazes fought to maintain their stocking rates and to avoid rest. Conservationists recognize that after decades of abusive grazing, sensative species no longer have the numbers to re-establish charred lands given BLM's propensity to restock after inadequate rest.

In a politically shrewd effort to avoid the stark reality that our public lands management policies are failing, ranchers are latching hold of their powerful political allies and evoking a short-term management paradigm and scientifically baseless claim that the fires could be prevented by intensive grazing.

Cattle Fragged

The Murphy Complex Fire

It will not take long for cheat and other highly flammable weeds as shown above to colonize this land given a little rain.

Furthermore, we must ask ourselves whether degraded and abused land such as this is any more desirable than the burns themselves. Intensive grazing will not ease us toward the balance necessary to mitigate unhealthy fire - grazing perpetuates the unhealthy conditions which serve as precursors to fire.


Western Watersheds Project 2007        Site Policies     WWP News     The Blog     More Links     Contact WWP