Range fires can rejuvenate, but can also be dangerous
Fire is a natural phenomenon that can rejuvenate range lands, but it has become a destructive force with the advent of cheat grass and other perennial invaders in Nevada.
“About 1.6 million acres burned here in 1999 and 1.3 million in 2000,” said Paul Tueller, professor of range ecology at the University of Nevada, Reno. “That’s probably about a five- to 10-fold increase over the turn of the century. The rise is due primarily to the increase in fine fuels, which causes the fires to expand rapidly whenever they’re ignited.”
Historically, the range would burn every 40 to 50 years, but rangelands now burn every six to seven years, according to Tueller.
“The root systems of many plants left after a fire, like horse brush and rabbit brush, will generate new plants,” he said. “But sage regenerates slowly, from seed. It will eventually start to re-invade, but it takes a long time.”
He said the Bureau of Land Management is trying to reestablish native perennials, but competition from cheat grass is hindering that effort and frequent fires encourage more growth of this invader, creating a cycle that’s difficult to break.
Range management practices around the turn of the century exacerbated the problem through overgrazing, but cattle and other livestock, when properly managed, can also reduce fine fuels, according to Tueller.
“We got a handle on how many cattle could safely graze, how early cattle could be released to the range in the spring and how long they should be out there,” he said. “We know a lot about grazing management and how to maintain the natural composition of the range, but there’s always room to improve. Some ranchers are very careful. They realize that the basic resource is the forage and vegetation, not the cow. Others haven’t figured that out.”
Don McIvor, spokesman for the Lahontan Audubon Society said changing vegetation patterns have had a serious impact on a number of sage-dependent species in the Great Basin, including the Sage Grouse, Sage Thrasher and Sage Sparrow. He was quick to add that his emphasis is on birds and he knows little of the impact on other native species, including reptiles, amphibians and small mammals.
“If there’s anything good to be said, it’s the fact that the problem is getting more attention and effort,” he said. “The down side, we’re dealing with enormous landscapes, so we’re talking about a lot of money. It took a long time to get where we are and it will take time to solve the problems.
“Education is a key element,” he said. “There’s a long-standing national belief that the Great Basin is an empty wasteland. In truth, there are valuable resources here that need our attention. It’s going to take a large effort on the part of land management entities and people need to rally behind them.”