Comments on the condition of burned rangeland in Nevada

Nevada rangeland deer

The impact to wildlife is a major concern when wildfires strike.

On a recent trip through areas of Northern Nevada rangeland that have been burned in fires during the past 3 years, I have made a few casual, unscientific observations. The purpose of my trip was hunting and camping in portions of Elko and Humboldt counties that had been heavily burned in recent range fires. I had hunted and camped in the same areas on different occasions in years before the fire damage had occurred and was saddened to see the destruction of the natural landscape that has occurred in recent years.

The most obvious damage occurred to the vegetation in the region where thousands of acres of rangeland and wildlife habitat have been lost. The Bureau of Land Management and other government agencies such as Department of Wildlife and U.S. Forest Service have been cooperating to revegetate as much of the area as possible. The methods being used are both aerial seeding with native grasses from aircraft and on-ground seeding in the flatter areas with mechanical grain drills. Seeding efforts are never a perfect solution for such disasters, but it is better than no action at all. Seeding in the high desert country depends on precipitation to be successful and water is a scarce commodity in the desert. If the rains come too fast before plants take root, heavy erosion occurs.

The impact to wildlife is the next major concern, since the native species that do survive the fires must relocate to places that were not damaged that are suitable for their survival. We cannot estimate how many birds and mammals simply do not survive this relocation. Most deer, pronghorn antelope, sage grouse, quail, partridge, coyotes, bobcats and other animals were obviously impacted by the fires. Until habitat for these creatures grows back, the range cannot support them. I estimate ten to twenty years before the range recovers even with revegetation efforts.

The extent of the destruction must be seen to be believed. When we observed the revegetation efforts in the older burned areas, I noticed the main seed used was the grass seed mix, probably crested wheat grass that has filled in quite well. The areas where the grasses had filled back in had numerous pronghorn antelope and coyotes, but no deer. Antelope feed quite well on the grasses and other small plants in the seed mixes. Deer, however, are herbivores that require vegetation that requires a longer period of time to mature in order to sustain a herd. These animals eat sagebrush, buck brush, bitter brush and others that require several years to mature to the point they will sustain many deer.

Sage grouse are the most affected by the fires. Sage hen habitat throughout the Great Basin has disappeared drastically from fire damage and human development in recent years. These creatures eat primarily sagebrush (artemisia) and little else. I have noticed that the sagebrush that has begun to grow in the reseeded areas does not look the same as the native sage brush. I have a fear that if it is not exactly the same as the native species, the birds will not eat it. The other problem I see with the sage brush coming up in the reseeded areas is that the individual plants are widely scattered. In original sage brush habitat, the plants are usually all sagebrush, not a mixture.