Please do your part to prevent range fires in 2019

Op-ed by Gretchen Hyde

In the summer of 2019, it appears that we may have a chance to have a smaller wildfire season. My, that sure would be good news for our forests and rangelands.

But are you ready to do your part?

In most parts of Idaho, we had above-normal snowpack and a very wet, cool spring. You might have noticed how green our rangelands look right now, even at lower elevations, and how tall and lush the vegetation has grown.

But when temperatures heat up in July, things will dry out, and our rangelands, which comprise more than half of the land surface area of Idaho, will be vulnerable to wildfires. Cheatgrass becomes a highly flammable fuel this time of year.

We want to remind Idahoans of one important fact – in any given year, typically 80-90 percent of the fires in our state are human-caused. That means we have a lot of careless accidents that can lead to huge fires that cause significant damage to our rangelands and the people who depend on them for their livelihood.

Last year, a Bellevue man was target shooting at an explodable target and ignited the 65,000-acre Sharps Fire, which became one of the largest fires in Idaho. It cost $9 million to control and more than $1.1 million in rehabilitation costs.  

As a matter of fact, about 60 percent of all the wildfires on BLM land last year were ignited by people shooting at exploding targets or steel targets. We would remind shooters that it’s illegal to use exploding targets, tracer ammunition or fireworks on BLM land in Idaho through mid-October. Definitely a no-no during the hot summer months.

Fires also can get ignited by vehicles next to highways, sparks from ATVs, UTVs or chainsaws, people failing to extinguish campfires, landowners burning brush, and other accidental means.

It seems that decades of Smokey-the-Bear campaigns have made most people aware of the need to prevent forest fires, but we don’t see the same level of respect for our rangelands.

What are rangelands? Idaho’s rangelands are the open lands with miles upon miles of sagebrush and grasslands in the lower country, and open forests and mountain meadows in the high country. Rangelands often are referred to as the sagebrush sea.

Rangelands are incredibly valuable to the ecological and economic health of Idaho. They’re important for fish and wildlife – nearly 85 percent of the mammals and 74 percent of the birds in Idaho live and depend on Idaho’s Rangelands.

Ranchers have managed rangelands with livestock grazing for well over 150 years. Rangelands also are popular for all kinds of recreation, fishing and hunting. They’re a source of clean water and clean air. They even have spiritual and cultural values.  Rural communities rely on these renewable natural resources to sustain their economies.

Many people have heard and read about multiple efforts to preserve sage grouse in Idaho and the Intermountain West. Sage grouse are an indicator species in the Great Basin. When we have big wildfires that destroy rangeland habitat, it has a long-term adverse impact on sage grouse and other wildlife resources. Wildfires and the spread of cheatgrass and noxious weeds that follow are the No. 1 threat to sage grouse.

From 2000-2018, wildfires destroyed about 15 million acres of sagebrush in Idaho, Nevada and Wyoming. From 2014-2018, wildfires burned about 9 million acres of prime sage grouse habitat.

Although federal agencies work hard on rehabbing and restoring public lands after big burns, it’s a very expensive and time-consuming process.

We need to do everything we can to preserve the best of what’s left on Idaho’s rangelands and the Great Basin as a whole. The good news is that if we humans take more care in doing our part to prevent range fires, that can go a long way toward saving quality rangeland habitat for everyone.

Gretchen Hyde is the executive director of the Idaho Rangeland Resources Commission.