A few weeks ago I went to visit the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area where I conducted my Boise State University thesis research on wintering raptors. While there was unfortunately little chance of encountering a Rough-legged Hawk in late June, I still wanted to see how the area had changed since I last visited in late February. While a few stragglers remained, a majority of the ground squirrels that had been so common back in February were now either in aestivation for the hot summer months, or had already been turned into dinner by the plethora of raptors that inhabit the area.
During the hottest summer months of July and August, few raptors actually reside within the Bird of Prey Area as most migrate elsewhere in search of more abundant food resources. One of the exceptions to this is the Swainson’s Hawk, which is a relatively late breeder, and stays in the area until August and September before leaving for their fall migration. These long-distance migrants will travel all the way down to the Argentinian Pampas in the southern hemisphere for the winter.
One aspect of this past winter and spring that has me worried about the Bird of Prey Area was the extreme lack of precipitation. The annual grasses were already dry and brown when I visited in late June, providing an excellent fuel source for wildfires. While fire management has improved dramatically in the area following the devastating wildfires of the 1980s, they do still occur on a regular basis. This year could be a particularly bad fire year given the lack of precipitation this winter and spring. As I write this post, the skies above Boise are already tinged a dull brown from other wildfires ignited by recent storms throughout the area. Unfortunately, it may be just a matter of time before one flares up in the Birds of Prey Area. Hopefully, whatever wildfires do occur are contained to areas that have already burned so we do not lose more of our precious native sagebrush habitat that wildlife depends on.
With wildfires currently in Idaho, Oregon, and Nevada, many thousands of acres of native land are being burned at a rate far faster than natural levels. This is due to the prevalence of invasive grasses and forbs such as cheatgrass, medusa-head rye, and russian thistle (more commonly referred to as tumble-weed). These invasives shorten the fire-return interval (the time period between wildfires at the same location) to less than 10 years when fire in the Sagebrush Ecosystem naturally occurred only once every 40-100 years. This shorter fire-return interval means slow-growing, native shrubs such as Sagebrush do not have time to re-establish before another fire blows through, thus creating a feedback loop perpetuating the spread of invasives. While there is little we can do to prevent wildfires ignited by natural causes (i.e. lack of precipitation and lightning), we can be more aware of our surroundings so that less human-induced wildfires are ignited.
Some things we can all do to prevent human-induced wildfires: 1) do not throw your cigarette butts out the window in the middle of summer (or any other time of year for that matter!); 2) be careful not to drive over tall, dry vegetation where sparks from the undercarriage of your vehicle can start wildfires; 3) do not have campfires in areas where vegetation is really dry or winds are likely to disperse embers; 4) if campfires must be built, keep them small and remember to put it out completely using water and a shovel to bury the hot coals; and 5) just generally be aware of your surroundings so you know where wildfires are most likely to ignite. We are losing enough native habitat as it is from natural causes that we don’t need to compound the effect through our own lack of knowledge or understanding. We want to preserve this native habitat so that we can continue to conserve the beauty and bounty of nature.