SHERIDAN — More than 8,000 acres of the Bighorn National Forest that burned in 2012 are growing back, and the area’s wildlife stands to benefit.
The Gilead Fire, which charred sections of the Bighorn Mountains northwest of Buffalo, has spurred plant regrowth, attracting grazers. Bud Stewart, public information specialist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said that when forests with a heavy canopy are burned, the leaves and branches that once blocked sunlight make way for ground growth, enabling grass and other small plants to photosynthesize more easily.
This brings in elk, deer and other grazing species to feed on the new grasses. Before the fire, these animals used the area for thermal cover in the winter or for protection from predators. But without the heavy canopy, the area is exposed and not suitable for these uses. This, Stewart said, is part of the larger cycle of changing uses by wildlife.
“It’s just a continuing pattern,” Stewart said. “It all depends on what’s there at the time.”
Not only is the post-fire habitat bringing in grazing animals, but it also serves different needs of smaller forest species than the pre-fire habitat did. For instance, while it could be years before squirrels and most birds return in full force, woodpeckers might come back soon to build nests in the hollowed-out trees.
“You know, most people will always associate all forest fires as being bad,” Stewart said. “Well, that’s not necessarily the case.”
It will indeed take time for the forest to return to normal. New lodgepole pine — one of the tree varieties that burned in the Gilead Fire — generally produce seeds within five to 10 years but can take up to 140 years to reach full height, according to a lodgepole pine report on the U.S. Forest Service website.
Lodgepole pine actually require fire to release seeds. The tree species produces a resin that binds the scales of pinecones together, preventing seeds from dropping. That resin bond is broken in temperatures of 113-140 degrees Fahrenheit, causing the seeds to fall to the ground to germinate.
So while the Gilead Fire has certainly made its mark, Stewart said the area is not necessarily worse off.
“You just have to realize that fire’s part of the ecology,” Stewart said.