Last week a Associated Press article proclaimed that the rehabilitation taking place after the Soda Fire, which burned 225,953 acres along highway 95 on the Oregon/Idaho border in August, was going well. Not so fast. According to a report from Roger Rosentreter, a retired PhD botanist who worked for the BLM for 38 years, things aren’t going so well. Dr Rosentreter submitted his report to the BLM on April 25th after attending a tour of the Soda Fire recovery area sponsored by the Society for Ecological Restoration on April 12th. The tour was attended by staff from the USGS as well as the BLM. The tour consisted of stops at three areas, the Wilson meteorological/erosion station, the Blackstock drill seeding area, and the Upper Blackstock area.

At the beginning of the report, Dr. Rosentreter states:

Based on observations at these sites is possible that BLM caused more damage than good on the Soda fire rehabilitation. Many of these actions caused damaged forbs and biocrusts. These disturbances destabilized the soil and will encourage the colonization by invasive species including cheatgrass.

This is startling because much of what caused the Soda Fire to burn so hot and quickly over such a large area was the combination of extreme conditions and dry cheatgrass, an annual grass that thrives in this area due to the disturbance of soils and biologic soil crusts caused, to a large extent, by livestock grazing. Cheatgrass germinates in the fall and goes to seed in late spring and early summer and then dies and dries out to become a fine fuel source that can rapidly carry a fire. Once a fire burns through an area, there is generally a rehabilitation effort that is often politically influenced by ranchers who would rather have livestock forage planted instead of native grasses, forbs, and sagebrush. That is what appears to have happened here.

Large areas of the Soda Fire have been replanted with Siberian and crested wheatgrass, a non-native grass species that ranchers like for its livestock forage value. It has little value as wildlife habitat and is difficult to get rid of once it has been established. In one unburned area visited by Dr. Rosentreter, the BLM had used rangeland drills to disturb the soil and plant seeds. According to Rosentreter, this area did not need rehabilitation but, unfortunately, the drills overturned the soils in the unburned area and little was growing in the  newly disturbed soils. These disturbed soils are now prime habitat for cheatgrass and medusahead rye, another invasive annual grass that has gained a foothold in this area and that is just as bad for fueling fires but even less palatable for wildlife than cheatgrass.

In this same area, the BLM had planted what they thought was Wyoming sagebrush (A. tridentata ssp. wyomingensis) which was found in the unburned areas nearby along with early sagebrush (Artemisia longiloba). Unfortunately, the sagebrush that had been planted was of two species that aren’t as preferred by sage grouse, mountain big sagebrush, (A. vaseyana) and basin big sagebrush, (A. tridentata ssp. tridentata).

In another area, herbicide had been applied at high concentration to an area that did not have cheatgrass or medusahead rye. It was applied much later than would have been effective had these invasive grasses been present. The result was the death of most of the native forbs preferred by sage grouse, most of the native annual plants, and some of the native grasses. However, death camas, which is toxic to livestock, remained on the site because it sprouts from deeper in the soil and later in the season. A rangeland drill was also pulled through islands of unburned sagebrush and forbs causing damage to the plants.

To summarize, Dr. Rosentreter says:

The BLM project personnel may not have consulted with a broad cross section of their own experienced resource personnel and, instead, relied on less ecologically knowledgeable fire, operations, and local range staff for planning this apparently ill-fated rehabilitation operation. An oversite review by BLM soil scientists, botanists and more experienced wildlife personnel could have provided valuable recommendations for adaptive management. Future review by non-agency scientists might help to improve future fire rehabilitation plans and actions. This rehabilitation did not utilize the knowledge gained from recent science on fire rehabilation nor on the vegetative needs of sage grouse.

You can read the entire report here:acrobat pdf Soda Fire Report April 2016

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About The Author

Ken Cole

Ken Cole, Western Watershed Project’s Idaho Director, is a 5th generation Idahoan, an avid fly fisherman, wildlife enthusiast, and photographer. He is also serves as a member of the board of directors for Buffalo Field Campaign.

15 Responses to Soda Fire Recovery Not Going as Well as Portrayed in the Media

  1. avatar Dana Quinney says:

    Right on. In the 35-plus years I have walked the sites of Idaho fires on BLM land, I have seen this same thing happen countless times–not an isolated incident.

  2. avatar Ralph Maughan says:

    There has been newspaper article after article about the poor ranchers and the Soda Fire, and the wonderful restoration that was being done by the BLM with the ranchers’ help and advice.

  3. avatar rork says:

    When I help plant things on state land in MI, we have to first report on where we obtain the seeds from – they must be as-local-as-possible (balanced with the desire to have seeds from many separate sites). Just grabbing something from a nursery and not even getting the species correct is hard to imagine.

  4. avatar Kevin Jamison says:

    This kind of idiocy by the Feds is almost enough to turn me into a Repelican.

  5. avatar Garry Rogers says:

    BLM often tries to assist ranchers without regard for the long-term stability of rangeland ecosystems. Here’s another excellent example of the disastrous consequences.

  6. I find this kind of rash “restoration” to be all too typical by the federal agencies, because they are not listening to the right people who care about the ecosystem and know about it in greater depth.

    • avatar Ida Lupines says:

      +1 It’s kinda hard to believe, isn’t it. Another time it was because ‘they didn’t have the right seeds to replant (for native grasses after replacing tinderbox cheatgrass or something with another non-native grass! Does that go up like a tinderbox too?). Why don’t they have the right seeds?

      It’s like some have an absolute aversion to native anything, and have to replace with a man-knows-better something. Or can’t admit when we screw up.

  7. avatar Janet Curtis says:

    blm doesnt know ONE thing about the eco system or even cheatgrass..which horses EAT. Leave them be to do the good work they do for the range and this wouldnt happen. at least they recognized cattle are causing damage.This is the dumbest cruelst agency besides the fws. Kill everything and then watch it burn. stupid as can be and it must stop NOW!Listen to Craig Downer. Listen to true biologists before allowing this rogue monster blm to manage anything. all they do is destroy! and nv better hurry up and stop sandovals plans to DESTROY 4000 more wild horses and burros! What idiots run and ruin this country shame on them and shame them on fb. call dc 2022253121 and demand the safe act and safe food act. demand it pass NOW! we dont eat horses they are mans best friend and not food. But they are in the food supply now! and that is disturbing as America becomes KOREA CHINA and other animal hating countries who eat these innocent animals. why cant people evolve. we dont have to eat any flesh like cannables. animals are evoving man is NOT! 2022253121 demand yr reps do good and stop all harm as we are in earths 6th extinction this time though it is OUR fault. we didnt listen so we now pased the tipping point. Not smart to continue to destroy whats left and speed up our own demise. we are going to have a war if our govt refuses to wake UP!

  8. avatar Rich says:

    That is the same thing that happens at the Idaho Nat’l Lab complex with or without a fire. Seems like some dufus who knew absolutely nothing about native grasses and forbs or natural landscapes was always calling the shots when an issue of vegetation management on the site came up. Usually the guy would just consult with a rancher who was grazing his sheep on the site. By the time the plan leaked out the equipment was already planting crested wheat grass or some other non-native grasses and the damage was done. All paid for by taxpayers for the benefit of a couple of sheep ranchers.

    • avatar Nancy says:

      “All paid for by taxpayers for the benefit of a couple of sheep ranchers”

      + 1 Rich.

      Although I’m sure BOB, the latest Troll on TWN, would find that yet another example of me, unfairly bashing another aspect of the livestock industry 🙂

  9. avatar Gary Humbard says:

    Although I worked for the BLM, I do NOT “drink the agencies kool aid”, nor do I fall hook, line and sinker for what an author posts. I first read the environmental document pertaining to the topic thus getting the basic proposed action of the BLM. In this case, I’m also going to be able to visit the area and see myself before I make any comments. One former BLM employees opinion is just that one opinion and it will take at least 10 years to determine the effectiveness of the areas recovery.

    If you are truly interested in what the BLM is doing on the ground, then here is the Post Fire Recovery Plan. If you want to just lambast the agency, keep firing away.

    https://eplanning.blm.gov/epl-front-office/projects/nepa/52963/63896/69241/J08B_SODA_ESR_Plan_9-30-15_electronicsig.pdf

  10. avatar Ida Lupines says:

    Jewell’s trip comes as several scientists have criticized the rehabilitation effort’s reliance on drill seeding and the use of herbicide in some areas of the 280,000-acre Soda Fire. The 2015 fire caused the most significant loss of sage-grouse habitat in a single fire season, burning portions of more than 40 grazing allotments, popular motorized and non-motorized trails and more than 400 square miles of wildlife habitat.

    Read more here: http://www.idahostatesman.com/news/local/news-columns-blogs/letters-from-the-west/article79368692.html#storylink=cpy

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‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

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