It may have been an interesting “A” for Northwest College students enrolled in the Ballinger Natural Resource Management Class, which took place under rustling pines and unspoiled skies on Saturday.
Six NWC students and a handful of locals attended the one-day outdoor seminar at Virginia and Merlyn Ballinger’s ranch in the foothills southeast of Wapiti. Much of the focus was the Whit Fire and its impact.
It’s called the Ballinger Wilderness Retreat — a cabin backed against a hill with outbuildings, trees and grass overlooking Wapiti Valley. The Ballingers graze cattle on the property and host Wyoming Disabled Hunters in the fall.
The Whit Fire burned parts of the Ballinger Ranch. One timbered hillside is now black as soot. Trees consumed in the blaze stand stubbornly like scorched sign posts. Some have clusters of scorched orange pine needles look like prickly oblong jack-o-lanterns. Other locations are unscathed as though the fire grew bored, leaving acres of lush grass to tempt any ungulate, wild or domestic.
Fire: “It can be good,” said Mary McKinney, Park County Weed and Pest assistant supervisor. “It can be bad.”
Prescribed fire can remove shrubs to allow more grass to grow, McKinney said. But, following a wildfire, weeds like cheat grass can invade. “Fire and invasive species,” McKinney said, pausing, “they typically aren’t a good thing.”
McKinney said she’s already done cheat grass mitigation on the Ballinger spread since the fire.
Cheat grass is a cool-season winter annual. It will germinate in late fall to steal all available moisture from native plants, McKinney said. Cheat grass can grow in temperatures just above freezing and thrive in places were native vegetation struggles.
Cheat grass can produce 500 pounds of seed per acre, McKinney said. “It’s a prolific seed-maker.”
The key is planting desirable plants and applying herbicides, McKinney said. “If you don’t put something good in there, all you’re going to have is weeds.”
It is crucial to know when and where to apply herbicides, McKinney said. And to employ the right herbicide to target the specific weed.
Herbicides such as Plateau are widely used in rangeland as a pre-emergent treatment for cheat grass, McKinney said.
Roundup is another popular herbicide that can be purchased in hardware stores. But, Roundup is nonselective. It kills everything, McKinney said. When she’s spraying with Roundup, McKinney said she places cardboard in front of trees to prevent the herbicide from splashing on them.
Wildlife, vegetation, forage and timber-harvest availability are affected by fire, said Alicia Brown, rangeland management specialist for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Following a fire, BLM collects soil samples to determine what plant species remain, Brown said.
Where dozers carved fire lines, the land must be reclaimed, she said.
Fire will also remove vegetation that had once hidden ancient cultural areas or artifacts, leaving them exposed to looters.
Human health and safety must be considered; burned trees that are still standing are called snags, or widow makers, Brown said.
With much of the vegetation removed by fire, landslides are possible during a six-hour rain, an event that could occur every 10 years, said hydrogeologist Joel Adams, Merlyn’s stepson.
The ground becomes saturated during a six-hour rain. When land that has no trees or shrubs to check erosion can no longer absorb rain, that triggers runoff. The runoff will carry sediment from the hills, Adams said.
The next drainage to the east saw greater vegetation loss and could experience greater runoff, Adams said.
Still, sediment would be dissipated on Ballingers’ range, Adams said.
Defense is the best offense
Whit claimed parts of the Ballingers’ range, but not all of it.
Grass near the cabin still forms a foot-friendly carpet. Pine trees stand in stately groups, but they have been thinned around the structure to provide fire-defensible space.
Taking proactive fire-wise steps helped save the cabin, said Jerry Parker, Park County Fire Protection District No. 2 administrator.
The Ballingers are exercising good stewardship, said Ann Trosper, watershed coordinator for the Powell-Clarks Fork Conservation District.
Being fire wise boils down to personal responsibility, Trosper said.
Since the early 1990s, 1 million acres of the Shoshone Forest have been impacted by beetles and other diseases, said Todd Legler, Shoshone National Forest risk management officer.
Beetle epidemics typically attack homogeneous (or same tree species) stands stressed by drought, Legler said. Younger trees are less susceptible to beetles.
Fires creating mosaics (checkerboard patterns) result in a variety of tree ages, thus preventing the spread of beetles and blight, Legler said. Timber harvest can also produce mosaics, resulting in healthier forests.
For many years, when wildfires broke out, they were immediately suppressed, Legler said. But natural fire is the forest’s way of rejuvenating itself.
Shoshone Forest personnel can manage fire to forests’ benefit, but it is difficult to control fire where 100 years of suppression efforts resulted in huge stands of similar-aged trees dying from disease and beetles, Legler said.
Treating large forests for beetles is simply untenable. However, in campgrounds and other public places, trees can be treated with pheromone packets to keep beetles off the trees, Legler said.
“Fire is the best tool we have to manage (beetles) on the landscape,” he said.
Fires also allow aspen trees space to grow, because they need sunshine, Legler said.
Tree diseases or parasites can be managed with timber sales, but only about 8 percent of the Shoshone is available for logging because the rest is too steep or within wilderness areas, he said.
Fires & fauna
Fire can improve habitat for elk, said Jerry Altermatt, Cody region terrestrial habitat biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
For example, the fires of 1988 removed trees, thus opening new forage, Altermatt said.
Grass and sagebrush return quickly following a fire, but trees are slower to regenerate, he said.
Altermatt leads the class on a hike to examine small patches of burn surrounded by sagebrush, grass and a few scorched conifers.
Typically, fire does not kill plant points on the soil’s surface, Altermatt said. And, in areas newly open by fire, plants have access to sunshine and moisture they didn’t previous have when sheltered by trees. Burns also increase nitrates in the soil.
Black soil warms quicker in the sun. Combine warm earth with precipitation and plants grow faster, particularly in the spring, Altermatt said.
The Ballingers’ place was touched by fire, but it’s still mighty easy to look at.
Unscathed sagebrush still offers cover, and knee-high grass undulates like dancers in the breeze. A doe pronghorn rests in a bed of partially burned grass, not bothering to rise when a car stops 100 yards away.
Life goes on.