Game Range Ramblin's
Game Range Articles by Mike Thompson,
FW&P wildlife biologist, writing for the Pathfinder
September 7, 2000
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana
John Firebaugh's dream came true.
John is the Region 2 Wildlife Manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. Like the rest of us, this fire season has weighed heavily on his mind. But, what separates John's mind from those of many of us is his optimism. Nearly a full week prior to the event, John dreamed it would snow in the mountains on Labor Day weekend. He reported this on yet another grim, smoky day when precipitation in any form or amount seemed unlikely at best, let alone snow.
Well, I'm sure it did snow in some mountains somewhere on Labor Day weekend. And, it was cool and damp enough around here to thank John for what must have been a positive telepathic influence on local atmospheric conditions.
Now, we can begin shifting our attention to the aftermath of the fires. And as we rush to repair the damages we perceive and fear, it can be helpful to take a step back and look at the burned landscape through the eyes of our wildlife.
From 1997-1999, Sallie Hejl and Mary McFadzen from the U. S. Forest Service Research Station in Missoula, and Thomas Martin from the University of Montana, gave us the wherewithal to do just that. Their field crews bunked at the Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range during the summer months while studying the effects of salvage-logging on cavity-nesting birds in a nearby 1,200-acre patch of the Pearson Creek drainage that burned in 1994. They also studied two other burned and logged areas elsewhere in western Montana, and compared them with a burned and unlogged site in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. Their final report was as timely as John's dream of snowy slopes, having been released on August 4, 2000.
In the report's introduction, the authors remind us that, "fifteen bird species (woodpeckers, flycatchers and seed-eaters) are generally more abundant in early post-fire forests than in any other major cover type occurring in the northern Rocky Mountains." The authors undertook this study because of the potential detrimental effects of modern fire exclusion from our forests, and of salvage-logging burned trees that provide necessary habitat.
All told, they discovered and monitored 464 nests of 9 species: Lewis's woodpecker, Williamson's sapsucker, Hairy woodpecker, Three-toed woodpecker, Black-backed woodpecker, Northern flicker, Red-breasted nuthatch, Brown creeper and Mountain bluebird.
Although the authors were able to corroborate the results of earlier research, which indicated that some bird species nested almost exclusively in burned forests that were not salvage-logged, and avoided salvage-logged forests almost entirely, the news from their research is that two additional categories of cavity-nesters could be identified. Nests by one of these groups of species were almost equally divided between salvage-logged and unlogged sites. There was also a group of species that nested primarily in salvage-logged plots.
So, salvage the best, leave the rest, and the birds will sort themselves out. Right?
You knew it wouldn't be that easy, didn't you? As it turns out, cavity-nesting birds and humans share a sweet tooth for ponderosa pine and western larch. And, not just any old tree. Big ones. The average diameter of trees with occupied nests ranged from just over 12 inches for the Three-toed woodpecker to 28 inches for Williamson's sapsucker. Big Douglas-fir will do when ponderosa pine and larch are in short supply, but lodgepole pine seldom made a good nest tree for the birds in this study.
Some bird species avoided burned stands with live trees in them, while other species selected for higher numbers of live trees. The authors didn't offer an explanation for me, but I wonder if this has to do with coloration. Black-backed woodpeckers and Lewis's woodpecker were the two species that never nested in an area with a live tree. These species are both colored to blend with a blackened environment and may be easier for predators to spot against yellow-brown bark and green foliage. Conversely, the Williamson's sapsucker is brightly colored and obvious against a bland, black backdrop. So, it may stand to reason that Williamson's sapsucker selected for the riot of colors in burned stands with higher-than-average occurrences of live trees.
The moral of the story it seems to me is that there's enough burned timber to go around for everybody, with a little forethought and consideration on the part of humans.
Conflicts between humans and our feathered friends will occur if we attempt to take the maximum possible amount of merchantable timber. Assuming such an approach would be economically practical, it would result in a dearth of suitable nesting habitat for bird species that depend on wildfires that have been comparatively few and far between in the past 90 years.
One possible approach that would tend to benefit a wide range of cavity nesting species would be to salvage-log the most accessible timber stands in the most environmentally friendly locations, leaving unlogged nearly equal acreages of burned timber with big ponderosa pine, larch and Douglas-fir trees in places that are tougher for humans to get to.
That's why birds have wings.
I might hasten to add that while birds do have wings, birdwatchers do not. It would be nice to set aside some burned stands with large trees at low elevations and develop some access for birdwatchers. There will be lots of unusual birds to see in such places during the next few years.
I'll ask John if he's dreamed of just where these special birdwatching areas should be located.