LEWISTON – Officials at the Clearwater and Nez Perce national forests have started lighting backcountry fires to improve wildlife habitat.
With wildfire season winding down in Idaho, forest officials are lighting the fires deep in the backcountry to reduce the risk of large and damaging wildfires in the future and to improve habitat for elk and other wildlife.
As planned, the fires have killed trees in some places and burned the thick undergrowth beneath the trees in others.
“We’ve got the kind of mosaic pattern we wanted to put on the landscape with some understory burning, some mortality and some crown fire,” said said North Fork District Ranger Doug Gober. “That is exactly what we were looking for.”
Gober said the Forest Service has done a good job suppressing fires for the past 60 years, but he said some fire is necessary to thin out the forest and allow diverse plant species to thrive.
The Forest Service, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, the Clearwater Elk Collaborative and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation seek to create a mix of habitat so animals like elk have more places to graze and to hide from predators and hunters.
“The fire that consumes shrubs that exist out there now will cause those to come back more vigorously. Anything that reinvigorates the understory shrubs and grasses is good for big game,” Gober said.
Elk populations in the basin plummeted about 10 years ago and have been slow to recover. Biologists say poor habitat, caused in part by the exclusion of fire for so many years, is to blame for the crash. They also say predators like black bears, mountain lions and wolves are making it difficult for the depressed herds to recover.
The Clearwater Elk Collaborative has recommended a mixture of logging, prescribed fire and managed natural fire to restore elk habitat in the basin. Areas like Weitas Creek, Pot Mountain and Toboggan Ridge have few roads and are not considered by the Forest Service to be places where logging is suitable.
In Stanley, Idaho, officials on Saturday canceled an evacuation order for about 65 homes and businesses, saying snowfall and a change in the winds had decreased the danger from a 40,000-acre wildfire.
The fire was fanned by high winds Friday, which prompted local officials to order evacuation of the town of Sunbeam and the Mormon Bend and Slate Creek areas, and to close part of Idaho Highway 75.
But on Saturday morning, they lifted the order and reopened the road, said Bill Paxton, an information officer for the U.S. Forest Service.
“The weather is greatly assisting us,” Paxton said Saturday, referring to higher humidity, lower temperatures, a shift in the wind, and about three inches of snow that fell Friday night near the incident command post where Paxton is stationed.
The fire still covers about 40,000 acres.
There were four wildfires burning in Idaho this weekend, including one covering 18,000 acres near Pocatello that Paxton said was likely to be contained by today. The two other wildfires were in remote areas and were being monitored, he said.
In Montana, snow fell on a 13,327-acre wildfire in the southwestern part of the state on Saturday and more precipitation was expected.
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