Climate change impacts are here to stay, scientist says
By Ann McCreary
The pattern of drought and extreme wildfires experienced over the past two years in this region and throughout the American West is not an anomaly, but are in fact predicted climate-change impacts that are now reality, according to a local wildfire and conservation scientist.
“I’ve gone to international fire ecology conferences a decade ago and they were saying this is the direction we are headed, but now it’s up front and in your face. The future is here now,” said Peter Morrison, executive director of Pacific Biodiversity Institute (PBI) in Winthrop. Morrison has studied wildfire for many years.
Hundreds of thousands of acres have burned, and are still burning, in Okanogan County this summer. Last year’s 269,000-acre Carlton Complex Fire, the largest fire in state history up to that point, has been eclipsed in size by fires in the central and northeast parts of the county.
“Okanogan County is really hurting from having one big fire season after another, and all of northeastern Washington has been impacted,” Morrison noted.
“We live in an ecosystem that is prone to fire in central and eastern Washington. But plants and animals may not be adapted to the intensity and frequency of fires that we are having,” he said.
How well the burned areas and their inhabitants will recover is unclear, he said. Trees and other vegetation damaged in last summer’s Carlton Complex Fire that might have recovered fairly well are struggling to survive because of the severe drought plaguing the West, he said.
The early spring green-up held promise, but the persistent heat and lack of precipitation have taken a toll, Morrison said.
“For example, forests where a lot of trees were burned somewhat by the Carlton Complex, that weren’t killed by the fire, would have recovered. But all the trees are really stressed out by the hot dry summer and lack of precipitation, even those that weren’t hurt by fire. A lot of vegetation recovery got shut down,” he said.
“We still don’t know the long-term effect. It may not recover the way that it would have,” Morrison said. “Some scientists are concerned that it will cause a state shift of ecosystems — that places that were forests will become shrub lands.”
That is a worrisome trend, he noted, because loss of forests, which store carbon, exacerbates climate change by allowing more carbon to escape into the atmosphere.
Addressing fire impacts
In trying to address the more immediate impacts of fires in the county, wildlife managers are evaluating steps to manage the large mule deer herd.
Like last year, after large tracts of winter grazing lands were consumed in the Carlton Complex Fire, wildlife managers anticipate issuing more doe hunting permits in an effort to balance the population of deer with the reduced winter range, said Scott Fitkin, a wildlife biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).
“We will issue a few more antlerless permits, but not on the scale as we did last year in the Methow,” Fitkin said. “We anticipate harvesting a few more antlerless animals in Okanogan Valley.”
Last month’s 11,222-acre Twisp River Fire seared much of WDFW’s Big Buck Unit, a 5,150-acre tract to the northwest of Twisp. Although some mule deer winter in the area, it is mostly used as spring and fall range for deer migrating to and from summer ranges in the Twisp River drainage and the Sawtooth Wilderness, according to WDFW.
“Big Buck is relatively small compared to other fires [in the county],” Fitkin said. “It’s not something we have to do mitigation for.”
The reduced population and last winter’s comparatively mild weather meant the deer herd remained healthy and the survival rate for fawns was better than normal. As always, the severity of the coming winter will impact the future health of the herd.
Fires in the Methow and elsewhere in the county have consumed large areas of shrub steppe habitat that supports a state-listed endangered bird, the sharp-tailed grouse, he said. The burned areas include the Scotch Creek wildlife area in the central part of the county, which includes the Tunk Valley unit where flocks of the grouse have been observed in the past.
Sharp-tailed grouse used to be abundant in the Methow but are almost never seen here today. In destroying the abundant bitterbrush and sagebrush that have gained a foothold in former grasslands throughout the county, fires may be doing the endangered bird a favor in the Methow and elsewhere in Okanogan County.
“They like grasslands. Now that we’ve had a bunch of land burned in the Methow that are going to return to a grassland state, it will be interesting to see if we see sharp-tailed grouse return,” Fitkin said. “The [state] sharp-tailed grouse recovery plan identifies the Methow as a potential place to reintroduce them.”
“We may have to wait another year for the landscape to recover. Next spring is going to be tough because there won’t be a lot of residual grass to provide nesting cover,” Fitkin said.
Squirrel habitat burned
WDFW, in partnership with Pacific Biodiversity Institute, is studying the survival of another species listed as threatened in Washington — the western gray squirrel. Much of their core habitat in the Methow Valley burned in the Carlton Complex last summer, including the lower portions of Black Canyon and the Squaw, McFarland and French creek areas.
This summer’s Chelan Complex Fire pretty much finished the job, burning upper portions of those drainages, particularly Squaw Creek and Black Canyon.
“All of their habitat was impacted either by last year’s fire or this year’s fire,” Morrison said.
WDFW and PBI had just launched a three-year, statewide survey of western gray squirrels to better understand the distribution and abundance of the squirrels. The research was put on hold in the Methow Valley in recent weeks when fire and smoke made access to the squirrels’ habitat impossible.
Hair tubes and wildlife cameras are being set up in the burned areas to study the impact of fire on the animals, and the cameras have shown a variety of wildlife in the burns.
“We do see wildlife surviving in the burned areas and the question is how stressed out the wildlife is going to be,” Morrison said. “A lot depends on how many more areas burn and whether these burns re-burn in coming years.”
Among the animals inhabiting these fire-prone ecosystems that are burning more intensely than in the past, humans are perhaps the least adapted, in Morrison’s opinion.
“The time to fight a fire is years before they happen. We need to start now fighting the fires of next summer and the summer after that. We need to do everything we can to get the human community fire-adapted,” Morrison said.
“Rather than expect firefighters to risk their lives saving our homes, we can start fighting fires now. These are painful messages but we have to take them seriously,” he said. “We spend millions of millions of dollars here locally each summer fighting fires. But when it comes to fighting fire the year before it starts, the resources aren’t there.”