While setting control lines and dropping fire-retardant foam are ways of suppressing wildfires as they are happening, the tools that Utah wildlife officials use to deal with wildfires after they’ve burned are much more ordinary: seeds.
Just about every year, after hundreds of natural and human-caused wildfires have burned tens of thousands of acres of public land, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources reseeds and restores burned wildlife habitat “to re-establish native and beneficial vegetation for wildlife.”
“That’s our main goal,” Shane Hill, a DWR habitat biologist, said in an interview Friday. “But also it helps to prevent erosion because we get seeds on the ground, they sprout and start growing and holding the ground in place with their roots. So, when it rains and snow melts, you don’t get as much runoff, which can impact water quality depending on where it is.”
Throughout November, Hill and other DWR biologists are restoring habitat at DWR-owned Wildlife Management Areas in Utah County that were burned during one of Utah’s worst wildfire seasons on record.
The Range Fire, which began in the mountain above Orem in October, burned 3,500 acres of land in central Utah County, including 2,000 acres of the Timpanogos Wildlife Management Area.
Hill noted the soil in the area burned by the Range Fire “has the potential of running down into Provo Canyon and then into the residential areas down there.”
“So by seeding it, we can help prevent that erosion from happening,” the DWR biologist said.
Most of the seeds are dropped from airplanes over a mapped-out, burn scar area. For seeds that need to be buried deep in the soil, the DWR uses a “drill seeder” pulled behind a tractor or ATV.
Seeding also prevents the growth of cheatgrass, an invasive plant that increases the risk of wildfires.
“The wildfire can be a good thing for habitat improvement, as long as we are able to keep the invasive species like cheatgrass out of there,” said Hill. “And that’s one other reason that we’re seeding it, so that we can prevent those grasses and invasive (plants) from establishing, which would exacerbate the fires in the future.”
One concern of wildlife officials, Hill said, is that some residents might “tak(e) advantage of the fire” by creating new, unapproved mountain biking and running trails that “negatively impact wildlife through disturbance.”
“That property is pretty popular with trail users — mountain bikers, hikers, trail runners,” he said. “And even before the fire, we had a problem with people creating new trails.”
“There are a few bad apples, you could say, that like to go and create trails,” Hill continued. “And we’re worried that they’re going to take advantage of the open space and create new trails, go in new places and routes that we really would like to avoid.”
The DWR closed the Timpanogos Wildlife Management Area to the public on Oct. 28, including parts of the Bonneville Shoreline Trail and Great Western Trail, after finding new biking trails.
“The entire WMA will be closed to the public, including foot, bike, OHV and horse traffic,” the state wildlife agency announced. “In April 2021, DWR habitat biologists will reassess the restoration efforts and plant growth and will determine if access to the (trails) … can be reopened to the public. However, the rest of the WMA will be closed until further notice.”
Even though the fire destroyed elk and deer habitat, Hill said wildlife biologists are “optimistic that this is an opportunity to reestablish some vegetation and get more diversity where the fire burned and will, in the end, likely be a better place for wildlife habitat.”
Throughout the rest of November, DWR biologists will also reseed and restore wildlife habitat that was burned by the Knolls Fire near Saratoga Springs, Big Springs Fire in Tooele County and Big Hollow Fire in Wasatch County.