Breaking the fire cycle: Washington County conservation plan committee proposes major budget increase

ST. GEORGE — The Washington County Habitat Conservation Plan approved its new budget, recommending a total increase of $125,000 for fire prevention and restoration.

A fire-injured tortoise sitting on burned ground in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, Utah, circa 2020 | Photo courtesy of John Kellam, St. George News

Members of the plan’s advisory committee gathered in the Washington County Administrative building on Sept. 26 to discuss next year’s budget, among other items.

They listened to presentations from the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, the Bureau of Land Management and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources — many of which focused on wildfire prevention and restoration.

The plan was developed to protect the Mojave desert tortoise, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Once it was approved in 1996, the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve was established. Red Cliffs Desert Reserve Biologist Mike Schijf said that wildfire — often fueled by invasive grasses — is one of the reptiles’ top threats.

In 2005-06, wildfire impacted “significant portions” of the Beaver Dam Wash and Red Cliffs National conservation areas, destroying perennial plants and tortoise burrows, said John Kellam, a wildlife biologist for both conservation areas.

Flames overtake habitat in the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah, circa 2020 | Photo courtesy of John Kellam, St. George News

Forage quality was altered in the aftermath, and that, combined with the number of fires, is altering habitat conditions and complicating recovery efforts. About 15% of adult tortoises died as a result, and in some areas, tortoise populations declined up to 50%, Kellam said, adding that it appears the population has not recovered.

“This is a really big problem,” he said. “These wildfires could lead to permanent population loss and decline in the reserve.”

In 2020, wildfire spread across approximately 12,900 acres in the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, including the Cottonwood Trail fire that burned 1,631 acres. BLM American Conservation Experience interns and DWR staff surveyed approximately 618 acres in the aftermath.

They found four live tortoises, 25 remains, one injured by fire, and 133 active or good condition burrows. About 16.3% of the adult tortoise population in the surveyed area died directly from the fire.

The conservation plan’s two primary goals, identified in 2019, are to restore burned tortoise habitat and protect unburned acreage through various means, including controlling nonnative plant species and creating and maintaining firebreaks through weed treatments, Schijf said.

A tortoise dies following a wildfire in the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah, circa 2020 | Photo courtesy of John Kellam, St. George News

Habitat rehabilitation can increase the survival of desert tortoises and aid in population recovery in burned areas, Kellam said. And without active management, non-native plants will likely increase at the expense of native species.

Management efforts include aerial seeding and manually planting native plants, such as Globemallow, Indian rice grass and Creosote bushes.

Additionally, $40,000 was added to an agreement between the BLM and Utah’s Watershed Restoration Initiative to acquire crews to assist with planting 3,000 native plants in a fire-damaged area this November or December, he said.

Kellam said that working on such projects can come with surprising benefits. Volunteers and staff got a treat while working on a project in November 2021 as a tortoise emerged from its burrow. They placed about 90 plants nearby so it would have food waiting for it in the spring.

A tortoise observes volunteers in the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Utah, November 2021 | Photo courtesy of John Kellam, St. George News

“A lot of these college kids from the East Coast from ACE (American Conservation Experience) — they’ve never seen a tortoise before,” he said. “So here we are rehabilitating the land to benefit tortoises, and this tortoise came out and was checking us out, and everyone was thrilled by it.”

Preventing wildfires

Curtis Roundy, a DWR habitat restoration biologist, said that after a fire, there is often an increase in cheatgrass, which sparks the next fire.

“We’re trying to figure out how to stop that from happening,” he said.

Roadside treatments were conducted in 2020-21, using pre- and post-emergent herbicides, which effectively controlled invasive grasses, generally reducing fuel loads, Schijf said, noting observations for September.

While creosote bushes and other shrubs showed signs of stress in areas treated two years in a row, the herbicide’s “long-lasting effectiveness” indicates doing so isn’t necessary, Schijf said. They plan to treat various areas within the reserve this year, including roadsides.

Because annual grasses fuel wildfires, Roundy recommends treating the ground with the preemergent herbicide Rejuvra, which shares its active ingredient indaziflam with Esplanade ES, to create a barrier in the first 1-2 inches of soil and prevent growth.

Volunteers plant native species in an effort to restore burned habitat, National Red Cliffs Conservation Area, circa 2020 | Photo courtesy of John Kellam, St. George News

The treatment can remain effective for five to seven years. If the grasses are already growing, they often combine it with the post-emergent herbicide Plateau, Roundy said.

To reduce the risk of treatment impacting tortoises, Roundy said they treated the area after the reptiles retired to their burrows for the season, conducted a survey to ensure none remained on the surface and completed their work as quickly as possible.

“We don’t know if it bothers the tortoises, but we’re not going to chance risking that, so we’re spraying at a time of year when they’re buried underground,” he said. “So … by the time they come back out, it should be in the soil profile and bound to it, where we don’t have any negative effects.”

The division has a project in the watershed initiative’s database that would entail approximately $120,000 worth of spraying to protect unburned areas in the reserve, Roundy said. Other possible treatments include chaining — dragging a chain across the ground to remove weeds — and manually removing non-native plants.

“Consider combining methods to maximize control and desired species establishment,” he said. “Be open to try new things — and new things are coming out all of the time.”

A budget increase

Cheatgrass grows near wildflowers in the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area in this file photo, St. George, Utah, May 14, 2023 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

Originally, the conservation plan budgeted $5,000 for fire prevention and restoration funds, with a $20,000 contingency. However, following the presentations, advisory committee member and Ivins City Mayor Chris Hart proposed a substantial increase to $25,000 budgeted with a $175,000 contingency.

Hart said that a large amount of work done sooner could be more valuable to preserving and restoring the landscape than that same work done over a long period.

“This (fire) is the biggest deal that we face, and it ought to look like the biggest deal we face in our budget,” he said.

Red Cliffs Administrator Cameron Rognan said that spending the money now will reduce what is available for this item later from the long-term budget, which is nearly $500,000 over 25 years.

Volunteers plant native species in an effort to restore burned habitat, National Red Cliffs Conservation Area, circa 2020 | Photo courtesy of John Kellam, St. George News

“If it’s smarter to spend a lot of that money up front now and reap the benefits in the long run, it could be wiser to spend that money now,” he said. “But that would come with the idea that you’re probably going to have less available in the future.”

Roundy said that if additional funds are approved, the DWR could use them as leverage to acquire additional funding for related projects.

The advisory committee unanimously approved the budget, including over $166,000 for adaptive management, funding work to build tortoise passages, implement the raven mitigation plan and conduct research, and $171,000 to install new fencing, among other items.

The proposed budget still needs to be approved by the Washington County Commission and could return to committee for continued discussions, Rognan said.

Additionally, he said that changing circumstances could impact the budget. For instance, the future of the reserve’s zone 6 and a large amount of associated funding largely depend on the outcome of the Northern Corridor lawsuit.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2023, all rights reserved.

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