MISSIONARY RIDGE Imagine a Fort Lewis College biology project where animals take their own photos. Couple that with extensive field work on the aftereffects of the 70,000-acre Missionary Ridge fire from 2002, and youve got valuable student research in professor Joseph Ortegas senior seminar.
Durangoans all remember the fierce wildland fire eight years ago. How can we forget the clouds of smoke, blowing ash and ominous fire line that seemed to march ever closer toward town? Thanks to the dedicated firefighters who set up their tents near the La Plata County Fairgrounds, the fire eventually came under control after burned buildings, destroyed vehicles and one tragic fatality.
But as I learned from professor Joseph Ortegas biology seniors, fire may be a problem for humans but not for wildlife and habitat. Its part of the natural order like an ecological reset button. Eight years later, the critters are all back, plants have recovered, birds nest in the tall charred snags and macroinvertebrates, better known to you and me as bugs, are enjoying remote creeks and streams.
Hunter Kunkel sought out plants in both burned and unburned areas in riparian or streamside ecosystems above Missionary Ridge and Vallecito Reservoir. He focused on river hawthorn by studying 36 plots along five creeks and found the plant had revegetated well. He even nibbled on a few of them and said, I actually tried it, but it wasnt very good.
Levi Curtis found more invasive plants like mullein, yellow toad flax and musk thistle in higher disturbance or burned areas.
Dana McCallister and Jamie McCoy chose to study fires effect on shrub densities such as snowberry, mountain mahogany, Gambel oak, chokecherry, gooseberry, dogwood and serviceberry. Serviceberry and Oregon grape recovered the fastest.
For FLCs biology students, the San Juan National Forest is a living laboratory just outside our campus, and studying the impacts of wildland fires yields important research.
Clay Kampf was intrigued by the scientific question: What are the effects of a large-scale fire as it goes downhill? He compared bugs in streams and noted, Eight years later, theres still a substantial difference in the water quality between burned and unburned streambeds with more bugs and higher diversity in burned areas.
Ortega cautioned, What exactly is it thats driving the patterns were seeing?
Tom Skiles and Brad Wigginton are for the birds literally. They studied birds all summer in logged and unlogged areas of the big burn, and from their study, I learned that small birds are cavity nesters that make their own space in dead snags and that birds can be key barometers of ecosystem health.
The goal as first espoused by Aldo Leopold in his famous Land Ethic is to have as many plants and animals as possible living on a parcel of land. The scientists found that the effects of salvage logging can be harmful to post-fire environments. How do they know that? Little birds told them.
They studied American kestrels, Lewis woodpeckers, red-napped sapsuckers, downy woodpeckers, hairy woodpeckers, northern flickers, violet-green swallows, black-capped chickadees, mountain chickadees, mountain and western bluebirds, red-breasted nuthatches and my favorite, the western tanager.
Skiles found that every single bird species chose a nest in a snag above 23 centimeters wide (about 9 inches). The team studied snags at least 6½ feet tall and through scientific plots determined that bird species were more diverse in non-logged burned areas by a factor of 5 to 3. Skiles concluded, Theres a huge amount of value in snags even if they fall over. Its cover for anything that slithers or crawls.
Mammals agree. Cherin Chapman and Tori Queen explained the ecological benefits of fire as promoting natural regeneration and creating a mosaic of habitat that supports different wildlife. They used Moultrie Game Spy digital flash trail cameras to record big game moving in and out of burned areas. I photographed the researchers setting up their 12 cameras in June for the summer along eight plots north of Missionary Ridge and to the east end of Lemon Reservoir.
In drafting their research plan, Chapman said, We could collect scat or use cameras, so we decided on cameras.
Good choice. Together we climbed the steep slopes of the burned area, slipping and sliding in soot and setting up cameras on ponderosas that would later be whacked by elk and smashed by bears. Her face smudged with soot, Queen laughed and said, I been tree huggin. The photos are fun and were downloaded every week onto the students computers.
Programmed to record any motion at 50 yards or closer, the trail cameras, generously paid for by the Mountain Studies Institute, documented all sorts of interesting activities: Coyotes slinking away. Bears and deer surprised by having triggered the automatic flash. Deer and elk with their antlers in velvet munching on new growth. Squirrels setting off cameras in a frenzy of rapid-fire shots.
Chapman explained, This is a new scientific technique that can be utilized now that cameras have become more affordable. This is doing science without camping out for weeks on end in hopes of viewing wildlife.
As we set up the cameras, Queen said, Its exciting to see how the area is recovering and how the wildlife are responding.
Chapman added, Theres the excitement of what we might capture thats different and unique. Wed love to know which animals are in which types of vegetation.
After numerous trips back up the mountain in June, July and August, they found out.
Chapman and Queens study, titled Mammal Habitat Preference, found that deer and elk prefer burned conifer stands, probably because of the tasty plants and shrubs sprouting under the burned tree canopy. Chapman explained that for wildlife the new growth is like a trip to the candy store. Mule deer return during the summer when understory vegetation begins to grow. Big games next favorite habitat is burned and unburned aspen groves.
For hunters like me, this is valuable knowledge that proves what weve always suspected. For other Coloradans who enjoy watching wildlife, this also means good news. Where can you find big game? In burned-over areas.
Sure, Chapman and Queen could have spent the summer bagging scat, but Im glad they didnt. As much as I value science and a better understanding of post-fire ecosystem regeneration, what I really love is the idea of animals taking their own photos. Self-portraits of bears. Elk strutting their stuff and smiling for the trail cameras.
Imagine while we sleep that animals are out there doing their own thing, following game trails, looking for food and preening themselves just in case theres a camera on the next tree ready to snap their photo.
gulliford_a@fort lewis.edu Andrew Gulliford is a professor of Southwest studies and history at Fort Lewis College.