Game Range Ramblin's

Game Range Articles by Mike Thompson,
FW&P wildlife biologist,
writing for the Pathfinder




Fires causes
intolerable benefits

July 27, 2000
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

by Mike Thompson,
Wildlife Biologist
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
"Game Range Ramblings" column Seeley Swan Pathfinder


By one measure at least, Round One of the Millennium's first fire season ended last Friday afternoon when an Incident Command Team began the long drive back to Idaho after a 6-day stay at the Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range headquarters. Round Two may have begun right away on Sunday with a lightning strike east of Garnet Ghost Town.

Who knows what kind of fire activity may be hot news by the time you read this.

Short of a direct military attack upon the United States, nothing else seems to bring people and agencies together like a wildfire. And, we are all well served and sincerely grateful when the outcome of the effort is a dead fire with no loss of human life or serious loss of property. Fire fighting is serious and important business.

Yet, there are contradictions. I don't know if there is anything to be done about them, but they interest me enough to write about.

On the one hand, it doesn't take much of an imagination to realize that our part of the world would be a very smoky place indeed this summer if we Europeans had not yet crossed the ocean and settled here. The fifty or more incendiary lightning strikes on dry vegetation two weeks ago would be burning like gangbusters today, if not for the tremendous effort people put into fire suppression.

By necessity, the plants and animals native to this land are the products of adaptation to millions of fires over thousands of years. In fact, there are species such as the black-backed woodpecker that appear to depend on fire as part of their life cycles.

For humans, fire events tend to be one of the benchmarks we use to mark the passing years. We may be able to remember whether such and such got married before or after 1988 because we remember the bad fire year. But, in the genetic memory of our wildlife, the past hundred years have been more remarkable for far fewer fires than any comparable period since the last ice age.

Plant and animal species that depend on fires for a competitive advantage over other species have been losing longer than the Cubs (the Chicago Cubs, that is). If this continues over a long enough period, we risk losing diversity and species richness in our wildlife.

So, if Gary Larson was still drawing cartoons, it wouldn't be too far beyond the Far Side to see a wildlife biologist, a seasonal fire-fighter and an elk sitting on lawn chairs beneath a dark sky, cheering every dry lightning bolt on a hot, July evening. (Sorry, but Gary wasn't available to offer me the punch line.)

The contradiction is that we can't tolerate most natural wild fires. I'm not saying we should. I'm simply stating the obvious.

And, we at Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) are no different than anyone else in this regard. As stewards of your wildlife populations, FWP biologists appreciate the role of fire in shaping and maintaining our natural ecosystems and wildlife, but FWP often has much to lose in wildfires. That's part of the reasoning for allowing fire crews to use the Game Range headquarters last week.

For one thing, it would be an expensive blow to the Game Range 50th Anniversary Project if lands being appraised for possible exchange between Plum Creek and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) were to go up in smoke this summer. No one can predict if the negotiations to bring 3,040 acres of Plum Creek inholdings into State ownership could survive such an untimely event.

For another thing, FWP now has concerns about security cover for big game animals during hunting season that were never an issue in days gone by when natural fires had their way. If we want to continue with the policy of allowing every general license-holder to hunt elk every year, then we need security areas to allow elk escapement.

Nowadays, the land we treasure as wild is carved up among countless ownerspublic and privatewith life, property, special interests and diverse values to protect on almost every parcel. Like the buffalo, the natural fire regime is gone, and it won't be back. To get some of the benefits of the old ways, land managers prescribe smaller fires in cooler seasons when the risk of unintended property loss is low. Or, they let well-behaved natural fires burn in remote places as long as they dare.

But, the days of leaving fire management entirely in the hands of Mother Nature are over. Increasingly, there is concern that Mother Nature will reassert her dominance anyway, energized by unnaturally high fuel loads caused by years of fire suppression. But, in a year like this one, who among us would decide to allow a lightning strike to burn naturally if there was the slightest possibility that a parching wind might whip up with another month or two of hot, dry, weather ahead of us? So, we frantically chase every lightning strike, in an attempt to neutralize tremendous forces beyond our control.

I do see contradictions here, and an eerie futility. But, if I were king, I don't know what I would do differently. Except, maybe, get more serious about more prescribed fires, in order to provide some of the benefits of natural fires and temper the rage of future wild fires, under weather conditions when humans have some control over the final result.

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