Snow Peak fire, good for wildlife

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Photo courtesy of IDAHO DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND GAME Wildfires and prescribed burns create nutritious forage areas for big game.

My eyes are burning and I hate the color of the brown skies, but there is a silver lining. Wildfires can be good for wildlife habitat and have a long-lasting impact.

One of the fires burning in the Panhandle is the Buck Fire on Snow Peak Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in Unit 9. The Buck Fire had burned more than 1,200 acres in the Buck Creek and Papoose Creek area as of Sept. 5. This fire is in an area where the Idaho Department of Fish and Game would like to see improvements in elk habitat. In fact, it is an area where we have been working with the U.S. Forest Service to design a prescribed burn project to create nutritious forage for big game. The Snow Peak Rx Burn project proposes to burn roughly half of the 32,000 acre Snow Peak WMA over the course of 10 years.

Wildfires, like the Buck Fire, may count toward burned acreage goals and will provide habitat improvements more quickly and cost effectively than prescribed fires. Plus, natural late summer/early fall burns tend to produce great forage for wildlife.

Snow Peak WMA burned in 1910 and 1926, but the lack of wildfires over the past 90 years has created dense closed canopy forests and old decadent shrub fields.

Deer, elk and moose can’t find a whole lot to eat in dense forests, although they do like to use those areas for shade during the hot months and for hiding cover.

Wildfires and controlled burns, on the other hand, can create openings where nutritious grasses, forbs and shrubs can grow.

A mosaic of burned and unburned forest can provide great forage and hiding cover for big game animals.

Burns can also prevent large catastrophic fires and help in the protection of private timber lands and important conservation areas. Fire — whether a wildfire or a controlled burn — isn’t the only tool we have to improve wildlife habitat, but in the case of the Buck Fire, wildlife and hunters may reap the benefit for years to come.

One of the downsides to current fires, besides the smoke, is area closures. The current Buck Fire closure area includes the eastern part of Snow Peak WMA and from Junction Ridge to Beaver Peak down to the St. Joe River. Road No. 201 is closed from the Snow Peak Lookout trailhead to Surveyors Ridge. Beaver Creek Road No. 303 is also closed.

Hopefully, this short-term loss in access will end up being a long-term gain for elk hunting on Snow Peak WMA.

Please take a look at the updated fire closures with IDFG’s Hunt/Fish Planner before you head to the woods: https://idfg.idaho.gov/ifwis/maps/realtime/fire/.

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Laura Wolf is a wildlife regional biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

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