Managers on the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest said they are pleased with the elk-friendly prescribed burns they were able to implement on remote areas of the North Fork Ranger District in recent weeks.

With this year’s nearly nonexistent wildfire season, the agency was able to start four prescribed burns last month. They started fires in the Barnard Junction area near Kelly Creek, another in the Moose and Kelly Creek areas, one at Long Creek near Hoodoo Pass and one in Weitas Creek.

Each of them were designed to improve elk habitat by scorching mature brush fields and taking out some mature trees to create elk-friendly ground. Initial reports indicate the burns have been successful.

“The comment I got back from my fire management officer and our fuels/assistant fire management officer was ‘You couldn’t ask for better effects,’ ” said North Fork District Ranger Andrew Skowlund. “They just went really, really well.”

Elk populations in backcountry areas of the forest have been flagging for decades. The blame as been split between declining habitat conditions and pressure from predators like wolves, mountain lions and bears.

At the urging of Idaho Fish and Game officials, U.S. Forest Service managers have been trying for years to accomplish prescribed burns in parts of the forest that are generally off limits to logging or where logging doesn’t make ecological or economic sense.

Massive wildfires in the first half of the 20th century created large brush fields, full of the kind of plants elk favor, across much of the forest. Elk populations boomed correspondingly. But the vegetation grew tall as the decades passed, sometimes making it difficult for even elk to reach. The plants also lost some of their appeal to elk. Young trees that followed the fires matured into middle-aged trees, and the forest, once rife with openings, started to close in. Elk suffered as a result.

Forest and game managers want to use prescribed fire and managed natural fire to spur new growth in the brush fields that have grown mature and are no longer as palatable or nutritious as they once were to deer and elk and to create openings adjacent to forested areas so elk can better see predators while grazing but also have cover to escape into.

“The primary objective is to enhance the elk habitat in this area, and what that entails is setting back some of the brush species that are in more of a mature state. What you want to do is knock them down and let that regrowth start again,” said Gregg Goodland, a Forest Service spokesman who specializes in fire. “Another element is to create openings for the elk and create that edge effect and give them safe areas for grazing.”

But starting prescribed burns can be difficult. That is especially true on the North Fork district, known for its moisture. Fuels on much of the district don’t dry enough to carry flames until late in the summer, but by that time there are often fires burning across the region and even throughout the West, stretching resources and plaguing communities with smoke.

This summer’s lack of fires, and accompanying smoke, presented a green light for burning. Still, forest officials faced an unexpected obstacle. With fire managers poised to start burns in several units, a train of mid-August storms drenched the fuels and pushed the start date back about two weeks. A drying trend that followed allowed them to light prescribed fires, starting in the last week of the month.

The fires have since been hit with more rain but are all still active. At last report, the Barnard Junction prescribed fire had burned 450 acres, Moose Kelly 350 acres, Weitas 500 acres and Long Creek 250 acres. Although the ground covered is modest, Skowlund said it should have a positive impact. The fires are expected to burn moderately until a season-ending rain or snow event snuffs them out.

“It definitely reset some of that decadent brush out there,” he said. “I think our outfitters and guides are going to be very happy. I think the hunting public will be very happy. It’s not an immediate benefit. It won’t be until next summer when the brush and forage is reset and much more lush.”

He said the habitat diversity created by the burns will also benefit other species.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation helped pay for the burns. Skowlund said the agency has approved plans to burn more areas in the future, and it’s working on environmental documenation on others.

“We are in the process of doing the environmental analysis and compliance for several additional projects coming online, with the goal being we basically have all of our roadless areas across the North Fork District covered under some sort of (National Environmental Policy Act) decisions so we can take advantage of burn windows and those opportunities as they arise.”

Barker may be contacted at ebarker@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.

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