ELKO — A dip in temperature marks the end of the 2013 fire season, which left northeastern Nevada relatively unscathed but consumed pockets of critical wildlife habitat.
A dry winter followed by a scorching summer — mixed with lightning storms — brewed a recipe for wildfire. Many places in the West experienced significant fires, including Arizona where 19 hotshot firefighters died. This region, however, didn’t ignite as it has in years past.
Five main wildfires burned the Elko district range totaling more than 28,000 acres, according to the Incident Information System website.
By comparison, the year prior about 151,000 acres caught fire.
“We appreciate the efforts of all the volunteers and federal and state agencies, and we’re thankful it was a relatively light fire season,” said Gary Zunino, county fire district administrator. “… It was an uneventful year, but that’s OK. We don’t need a million acres burned.”
Although the total number of acres destroyed was low, the fires had an acute impact on fragile wildlife habitat. The Red Cow Fire burned about 16,000 acres, much of which was prime sage-grouse habitat, according to the BLM.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will make a decision whether to add sage grouse to the endangered species list in 2015 due to the destruction of habitat. Fire has been identified as a major sage-grouse habitat threat by the agency.
“When a fires goes through, plants like sagebrush don’t resprout like other plants do,” said Joe Doucette, conservation educator for the Nevada Department of Wildlife. “The first thing that generally comes back are grasses or forbs.”
If the area is reseeded, Doucette said, followed by a couple of wet years, the sagebrush can recover. Young sagebrush doesn’t provide the nutrients for wildlife until it’s matured, which can take anywhere from five to 10 years.
And sage grouse don’t just prefer sagebrush environments, but rely on it for survival, he said.
Before an Oct. 1 partial federal government shutdown put all but one local BLM employee on furlough, the agency planned to rehabilitate burned land.
The rehab fire areas were from the Smith Ranch, Wieland, Waterpipe and Red Cow fires, as well as a fire located south of Wells.
The projects — seeding, fence repair and noxious weed treatment — were to target wildlife habitat areas.
NDOW has partnered with the agencies on rehab projects. In checkerboard areas, BLM rehabs public land while NDOW focuses on private land.
Doucette said the department will do aerial reseeding this winter with a mixture of brush seeds, as well as grasses and forbs to help stabilize the soil and keep invasive weeds from moving in.
“We have an excellent relationship with our federal partners,” he said. “The BLM, the Forest Service and NDOW work very well with each other for the benefit of wildlife and agriculture, combined. … and the private landowners have been really good. It’s really a partnership between private, state and federal agencies. All three legs of the stool have to be there for the thing to stand.”
Besides sage grouse, many other animals likely perished in the fires.
County Commissioner Grant Gerber said he’s studied wildfires going back to the 1950s. A few years ago, he founded the Smoked Bear Campaign that advocates for land management reform by highlighting the number of animals burned and pollution emitted from wildfires.
Gerber estimates three animals die per acre burned. Using that formula, he calculated more than 80,000 animals died in local fires.
“Whenever there’s a fire, it’s going to burn a significant number of animals in the area,” he said. “The only ones that get away are the ones with wings and long legs — and only some of them get away.”
Doucette said there’s no way of knowing how many animals died per fire, but said Smoked Bear’s multiplication formula doesn’t account for numerous variables, such as whether any given acre is habitat to a large animal population.
“As a general rule, you’re going to loose animals to fire,” he said.
The commissioner — who figured the fires caused more than 2.8 million gallons of pollution this year — said the county is fortunate it didn’t burn more.
“Our research shows that Elko County is the most burned over county in the nation,” he said.