Wildlife after a fire

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  • Star trails streak the night sky in an nearly nine minute exposure.

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  • Star trails streak the night sky in an nearly nine minute exposure.

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So it was just getting dark and I was busy setting up cameras along the shore of Lake McDonald, waiting for the big run of the Sprague Creek Fire. Everything was going fairly smoothly, which is to say I had completely forgotten any sort of headlamp, so I was stumbling around by the light of the moon and my cell phone.

Just before the wind really started blowing a great horned owl flew in. It would swoop through the trees and then out over the lake, low and slow. At least it looked slow. Owls are such a mass of feathers that they look slower than they really are.

I suspect it was hunting bats, which were also flitting over the lake like giant butterflies.

The owl would make a big swoop and then land in the trees right behind me. An owl’s main source of defense is generally just to sit still. They’re so tuned into the dark and so used to not being seen that even when you do see them, they generally don’t fly away. Though, if you do get close, they will stand rather straight and upright, trying to look as skinny as possible.

This owl did none of that. It seemed, quite frankly, to care less that I was even around.

Then it got dark-dark, and the wind really kicked up and as near as I could tell, the owl stopped hunting, or at least flew off to some place where the hunting was better.

I was on the side of the Lake McDonald that burned in spectacular fashion the evening of Aug. 10, 2003.

It’s an interesting landscape today. Half of it was a high intensity burn that killed all of the conifer trees. Now it’s a thicket of willow, cottonwood and aspen. In other words, elk, deer and moose food.

The other half, toward the head of the lake, is more mosaic burn. Firefighters set a burnout operation there to stem the northward march of the fire.

The net effect was it killed a lot of trees, but not all them, so there’s still some real big cedars left and many that have died over the years. The hemlocks are coming back up there, too, thick as grass in some parts.

Overall, it looks like a real mess, but nature isn’t always pretty. Folks are wondering what happens to wildlife during and after a fire. The short answer is the long-legged creatures mostly move off before the flames get there, though some do get burned.

Can’t remember which fire it was, but a few years back firefighters saved a black bear that had burned its paws in a fire. Vets nursed it back to health and it was released back into the wild, only to be shot by a hunter.

The short-legged creatures, as one can imagine, probably don’t do as well, though squirrels and chipmunks can get underground away from the flames.

What’s really interesting is the number of squirrels in a post-fire world. It only takes the survival of a few cone-producing trees to have squirrels back in a burned over woods in short order.

I wouldn’t call a wildfire “good” or “bad.”

Big stand-replacement fires that fry all the trees aren’t good for bird species that rely on seeds for food. You won’t find red-winged crossbills and evening grosbeaks in a post-fire environment, for example.

On the other hand, the dead trees, and the beetle larvae that eat them, attract species like black-backed woodpeckers, three-toed woodpeckers and red-shafted flickers, to name a few.

This results in a cascading effect, with other species like mountain bluebirds nesting in the holes the woodpeckers make. On the ground, the grasses that result draw voles, which attract owls, that live in the old nest holes made by pileated woodpeckers.

A dead forest is surprisingly alive, even a year or two after a fire.

Of course, the trails are no longer shaded and the hikes through burns are often hot and sometimes miserable.

I hate to see campgrounds in particular fry, because it means there will be no shade or shelter at camp for years to come.

The foot of Red Eagle Lake immediately comes to mind. It burned over in the Red Eagle Lake Fire. It’s not a bad camp, but it’s not a favorite, either. Too hot on the hot days. Too windy on the windy days and downright miserable on the snowy and rainy days.

I must admit, I’ve seen enough of Glacier burn over the past 20 years. I’ve had enough of fire, even though there are landscapes, most notably the Belly River, that would benefit from a low intensity fire.

Unfortunately, those sort of blazes are few and far between.

Chris Peterson is the editor of the Hungry Horse News.

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