Big SE Ore. range fires burning wildlife habitat

Few people live in area -- but plenty of animals

KTVZ.COM news sources
POSTED: 11:24 PM PDT July 12, 2012 
Sage-grouse - BLM
BURNS, Ore. -

Wildfires burning in the picturesque high desert country of southeast Oregon have already scorched more than a half-million acres. In addition to all the typical problems associated with fire, a major concern in this area is the displacement of threatened sage-grouse, along with other birds and animals.

This part of Oregon is known for its healthy sage-grouse population, birds that depend on sagebrush for food, breeding grounds and every other aspect of life.

Matt Little, conservation director with the Oregon Natural Desert Association, says the sagebrush eventually will grow back -- but so will lots of other plants.

"The trouble is trying to keep the invasive species out, like cheatgrass and Medusa-head," Little said Thursday."That is a big challenge that land managers have been trying to deal with over the last couple decades here -- and it's one that we haven't figured out."

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has special rules for managing fire in sage-grouse areas, including minimizing vehicle travel in habitat areas, and power-washing all firefighting equipment to help keep noxious weeds from spreading.

Little says fire areas are sometimes replanted with crested wheatgrass. He says it isn't a weed, but a non-native species that doesn't offer much benefit to sage-grouse.

He says it may seem like desolate country, but many native birds and animals are losing homes and food sources.

"Well, there's mule deer, elk, pronghorn out there; pygmy rabbit, other sensitive species," Little said. " Definitely raptors, golden eagles that need to feed on the smaller critters that live out there. And it's an amazing part of the Owyhee River watershed."

It may take a century for the thousands of acres of sagebrush to fully regenerate, Little added. In the meantime, the birds and animals lucky enough to survive are being forced into other areas to compete for food and habitat.

Chris Thomas of Oregon News Service prepared this report.