BLM habitat project rejuvenates mountain flora
The Bureau of Land Management has contracted some heavy machinery to knock down large swaths of thick brush that have been choking out more beneficial vegetation and have become dangerously dense in the event of fire.
Altogether, the agency is clearing about 270 acres of brush in a patchwork approach covering about 600 acres near Center Mountain south of New Castle. This project is expected to continue through September and wrap up before the first rifle deer season.
David Boyd, BLM public affairs specialist, estimated that since 2003, BLM’s Colorado River Valley Field Office has conducted about 50 such clearing projects, including prescribed burns and hand thinning.
But in the case of Center Mountain, the BLM has opted to use a “roller-chopper” and hydro ax to make short work of large spans of nearly impenetrable brush.
The project is being done in conjunction with nearby oil and gas operations southwest of New Castle.
In theory, the project should benefit the same wildlife population that’s being affected by the drilling operations, said Boyd.
The roller-chopper, a bulldozer affixed with a 20,000-pound steel drum, knocks down this thick brush was also digging its tracks into the soil, leaving a rough, texturized soil that’s easier for seeds to latch onto and good for absorbing water.
The key to this machinery is in the weight, said Billy Roedel, the BLM’s contractor. The 10-ton drum can be filled with another 1,800 gallons of water. Tracks on this drum dig into the ground as it crushes the vegetation and effectively plants seeds that have never touched the ground, said Roedel.
The hydro ax, which is a slower-going but powerful machine, eviscerates any trees or plants in its path, leaving behind a layer of mulch.
Bobby Roedel, the contractor for this project, called this a “haircut” for the vegetation. Because the hydro ax leaves the roots underground intact, its effectiveness only lasts about 10 years, whereas the BLM is hoping to get another five years out of the bulldozer method.
“Essentially, we’re mimicking the effects of a wildlands fire,” said Chad Sewell, a BLM fuels specialist. The last time this a prescribed burn happened in this area was in the 1980s, he said.
Decades of fire mitigation efforts have protected the land from the regular scoring these species have evolved with. So an unintended consequence is that many plants that would be regularly burned are allowed to grow without restraint.
Clearing the brush doesn’t do away with these fuels but rearranges them to create fire behaviors that are safer to combat, said Sewell.
Wildland fires naturally burn in patches, what Sewell called a “mosaic burn,” which creates openings for the animals rather than just destroying the landscape.
The leaves of the oak brush, when they’ve lost enough moisture, become volatile. A fire will travel up into the leaves in the canopy, where it can be blown by the wind and travel uphill very quickly.
Oak brush burned nearby in the 1994 Storm King fire that claimed the lives of 14 firefighters, said Sewell.
This approach moves the fuels to the ground where they will burn slower and be fanned less by the wind.
Firefighters can also use these small treatment areas, linking the clearing together to make a fire line and create a box around the fire, said Sewell.
The wildlife is also facing a lot of pressure from development expanding into its habitat, so the effort is meant to create pockets of nutrition for these animals, said Sylvia Ringer, BLM wildlife biologist.
The project will create the space for grasses, younger oak brush and other nutrient-rich plants with acorns and berries that animals like deer and elk feed upon, said Ringer.
The BLM’s target in this case is mainly oak brush, though this treatment knocks down many other plant culprits as well. When the oak brush is allowed to grow older and larger, it becomes more tough and woody, according to Ringer. After this project the brush will comes back with soft shoots that animals like to eat.
She also hopes this roughed up soil will promote sage brush in the treated areas, which she said many wintering big game rely on to get by in the cold season.
The animals also benefit from variety in habitat. Wildlife are drawn to the boundaries between one type of habitat and another, between covered areas where they can hide and open areas where they can forage, said Ringer.
Raptors too like to have vegetation they can perch in and watch their prey in the clearings, she said.
“The thick brush is hard for hunters to move through as well, so I think this project will make a lot of people happy,” said Ringer.
This project isn’t killing these plants, the BLM staffers said. Oak brush is an especially hardy plant that’s difficult to kill. In fact these plants by this point already have enough carbohydrates in reserves for next year, said Ringer.
It’s counterintuitive, but disturbing the plant life in this way actually rejuvenates it, she said.
It’s similar to deadheading plants in a garden; if you cut off the dead flowers of a plant, you can stimulate it to keep growing and extend your season, said Boyd.