The sight of a huge herd of elk in an area of the Southern Black Hills scorched by the 2000 Jasper Fire demonstrates the positive effect that fire can have on wildlife habitat.
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation recently announced more than $71,000 in grants, including funds to improve forage through prescribed burns on 1,986 acres in the Black Hills, including the southwest corner of Custer State Park, northwest corner of Wind Cave National Park and portions of U.S. Forest Service and private land.
“Our focus is primarily the elk themselves, but without good habitat, we don’t have any critters of any sort,” said Tom Slowey of Yankton, one of two RMEF regional directors for South Dakota.
Black Hills National Forest officials have been hoping to schedule a burn in that area in Custer State Park, part of the Norbeck Wildlife Preserve.
“We’ve been trying to get the conditions right to get that burned for a couple of years now,” said Kerry Burns, forest wildlife biologist for the Black Hills National Forest.
“Conditions have to be just right. The major objective is negating the risk of losing (control of the fire),” Burns said.
The prescribed burns, to be scheduled when weather and ground conditions allow next summer, are planned to eliminate Ponderosa Pines encroaching on Aspen stands and to clear layers of pine needles, dead vegetation and other noxious weeds from the forest floor.
“The result is a much healthier stand of grass. You get the shrubs that start to come back right after a fire that are much better forage,” Slowey said.
“That’s why all the animals, the deer, the elk will come in and start feeding there, as opposed to the mature stands of forest where you have no graze or browse species left,” Slowey said.
The Jasper Fire was one of the worst man-caused wildfires in Black Hills history, blackening more than 83,000 acres of timber and grassland in August 2000.
But a count in the rejuvenated burn area earlier in 2013 revealed huge herds of elk. The expansive herd, estimated at more than 900 animals, wouldn’t fit in one photograph taken from a helicopter.
Burns said the fresh start of new forage growth benefits not just elk, but other small mammals, deer and wild turkeys.
“The new shoots that come up are very palatable, much easier to digest. That can be a factor when the elk are going into winter, when they’re wanting that really good food,” Burns said.
Scheduling is a risk, a heavily calculated one. Early to mid-summer, once the ground cover and cool-season grasses are dry enough to burn, is the preferred time.
“Controlled burns are expensive because of the potential for fire to go places you don’t want it to. It takes a lot of planning and a lot of manpower to pull off these prescribed burns in a safe manner. The end benefit is that you wind up with better habitat,” Slowey said.
Burns said the potential benefits of a fire outweigh the risks, but there are risks.
“It can kill larger trees. That can get a little hairy. You don’t want to get into that, because you don’t want to get a crown fire going. If you can kill some medium-sized trees, that can open up the canopy a little bit and get some sunlight to the forest floor to get some nice forage going,” Burns said.
“Fire has its place when we can do it safely,” Burns said.
Source: Rapid City Journal