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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

When the smoke clears, what about the wildlife?

A youngling female white-tailed deer, with a few spots left from her fawn days, is seen on a hazy July 14 in the Five Mile Prairie area of Spokane.  (Libby Kamrowski/ THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
A youngling female white-tailed deer, with a few spots left from her fawn days, is seen on a hazy July 14 in the Five Mile Prairie area of Spokane. (Libby Kamrowski/ THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Eric Barker Lewiston Tribune

LEWISTON – When people in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley desire close-to-home outdoor recreation they have two main destinations – Asotin Creek in Washington and Craig Mountain in Idaho.

Both are state-managed wildlife areas laced with a mix of other public and private ownership and offer not only opportunities to hunt and watch wildlife but to hike, bike, shoot and camp.

This summer, both are experiencing large wildfires that will surely change their look as well as the quality of habitat for the animals that call them home. Both have evolved with wildfire as a critical player in the ecosystem, one that brings both positive and negative effects. Where the balance shakes out after the smoke clears is likely going to depend on the way each of the fires spreads and the intensity of the flames at various places.

Wildlife managers haven’t yet had a chance to fully assess the changes but offered some initial insights. Bob Dice, manager of the Blue Mountains Wildlife Areas for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the 65,000-acre Lick Creek Fire burning on the Asotin Wildlife Area did some damage as it raced through Charlie Creek, Lick Creek, the forks of Asotin Creek and across Smoothing Iron Ridge.

“We lost some trees in some areas where the shrubs and vegetation are thicker and it got awfully hot,” Dice said. “It was a shame to see some bigger trees get torched, and we lost some areas where we did some tree plantings.”

The fire also consumed some of the boundary fencing for the wildlife area as well as some elk fencing in the Peola area.

“We don’t know how much we lost,” said Dice, who added he hasn’t heard of any significant loss of wildlife.

“I’ve seen a lot of deer wandering around aimlessly. The elk left Smoothing Iron. I’m not sure where they went, but I’m sure they will be back. It’s been a little rough on mule deer and bighorn sheep. They lost a lot of feed. It will come back, but it’s kind of tough at the moment.”

Frances Cassirer, a bighorn sheep biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game who also works closely with Washington wildlife officials, said the wild sheep herds on Craig Mountain and Asotin Creek seem to have largely escaped the fire. According to GPS data from collared sheep in the Asotin Creek herd, the animals survived.

“They were right where the fire was burning in Charlie Creek and Bracken Point, and they managed to stay out of the way of the fire,” Cassirer said. “We are curious about the lambs, though.”

The lambs are about seven weeks old.

“They are very nimble, but I worry about smoke inhalation,” she said. “They are just more susceptible to everything.”

The Redbird herd on the Craig Mountain Wildlife Management Area where the three-fire Snake River Complex has covered about 100,000 acres also appears to have escaped the fire. Cassier said wildlife technicians have seen groups of the herd from the Snake River.

“They haven’t been in the fire, they just have the drought to deal with, and they seem to be doing fine so far,” she said.

But the loss of grass could be challenging for the animals, especially the lambs.

“They are still nursing,” she said. “If the ewes can’t get enough to eat, they won’t be able to provide enough milk for their lambs, and that would be difficult.”

While Craig Mountain and Asotin Creek and the animals that live there have evolved with fire, it has arrived unusually early this year. That means fall rains and the accompanying green up of grasses that follows the flames is still months away.

“We just need some water,” Cassirer said.

When it comes, the blue wheat bunch grass and Idaho fescue that grow on the slopes of both wildlife areas will be critical food sources for sheep, deer and elk.

“It will rain, and it will green up,” Dice said. “I think a lot of our ranges are going to come back and look really, really good.”

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