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Mazama Pocket Gopher

Mazama pocket gophers are an important component in South Sound prairies. While still found in Thurston and Pierce Counties, they are globally rare and considered threatened with extinction by the State of Washington.
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Center for Natural
Lands Management
South Sound Prairies Program
120 Union Ave SE #215
Olympia, WA 98501
Main line: 360-464-1024

Patrick Dunn
South Puget Sound 
Program Director

360-956-9713
pdunn@cnlm.org

Sanders Freed
Thurston County Program Manager

360-451-6696
sfreed@cnlm.org

Sarah Hamman
Prairie Conservation Science
Program Manager

360-283-5495
shamman@cnlm.org

Mason McKinley
Joint Base Lewis-McChord 
Program Manager

360-283-5493
mmckinley@cnlm.org

Sierra Smith
Conservation Nursery Program Manager

360-480-6105
ssmith@cnlm.org

Elspeth Hilton Kim
Cooperative Conservation Program Manager

360-464-2524
ekim@cnlm.org

Joy Hochstein
Grants Administrator

619-313-4640
jhochstein@cnlm.org

Technical Information

Cascadia Prairie Oak Partnership brings together professional conservationists and restorationists from throughout the Northwest. If you would like to reference scientific papers about prairies or network with the professional conservation community please contact Elspeth Hilton Kim.

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« CNLM's South Sound Program Quarterly Highlights | Main | CNLM's South Sound Program Quarterly Highlights »
Thursday
Nov022017

The Scatter Creek Wildfire and Nature’s Recovery

In late August a wildfire in south Thurston County burned through the Scatter Creek Wildlife Area charring 345 acres of the preserve.  The fire did extensive damage to structures, destroying the historic 1860’s home and barn on the preserve.  The fire also incinerated important habitat for over a half dozen butterflies that the state has deemed Species of Greatest Conservation Need, potentially killing scores of caterpillars and pupae.  These butterflies include the Taylor’s Checkerspot, Valley Silverspot, Great Spangled Fritillary, and Hoary Elfin, as well as the Oregon Branded, Mardon and Sonora skippers.  The fire also burned significant stands of oaks and fir on the property.

Could there be a bright side to all this destruction?  It will take several years to know for sure, but the potential exists for the habitat to rebound healthier and more diverse than before the fire.  Our south sound prairies are fire adapted ecosystems, meaning they require a periodic refreshing of vegetation from fire.  We believe that under the historical native burning regime fires occurred every 3-5 years, but many areas likely saw much longer fire return intervals.  Indigenous fires had a different effect on the landscape than present day burns because our natural areas are now dominated by non-native vegetation which is far more dense and therefore burns with a different intensity.  Currently, ecological burning occurs each year at Scatter Creek and aims to remove this non-native vegetation, opening up space for native seeding.  Smoke management concerns, burn bans and careful management of rare species habitat limit the extent and locations of these controlled burns.

What's Left?

The Scatter Creek Wildfire burned through a vast swath of the southern portion of the preserve, hitting far more of the landscape than would be targeted with controlled ecological burns.  The fire intensity varied across the burn which is an important characteristic of helpful fires.  High intensity areas clear out moss and thatch build up and can kill weed seeds near the soil surface, while low intensity areas provide a refuge for plants and insects.  However, this fire burned so much of the landscape including all of the known habitat for most of the rare butterflies on site, that there is a great concern for the survival of these populations.

A charred area of Scatter Creek after the fire.

Shrubs

When fires are excluded from the local prairies, succession quickly occurs first with a dense shrub layer which can then be followed by the encroachment of Douglas fir trees.  The Scatter Creek Wildfire completely removed the shrub layer from burned area resetting the successional state back to grassland and opening up more space for the native grasses and flowers.  The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, which manages the preserve, will be removing up to 50% of the dead and dying fir trees from the burn area, further opening space for the prairie vegetation and releasing the Garry oaks from competition.

Oaks

Garry oak trees (Quercus garryana) are an important component of our south sound prairie ecosystem, forming woodlands along waterways such as Scatter Creek and open oak savannahs in drier locations.  Oak trees provide food and nest sites for woodpeckers and other birds and host a range of understory plants that are unique to the oak woodlands.  The Scatter Creek Wildfire burned significant oak stands but within 8 weeks some resprouts were already visible.  It is likely that many oaks were killed but the removal of fir trees and shrub competition may ultimately mean a healthier oak population.

An oak tree resprouting in the area post-fire.

An Opportunity

In addition to the natural response to fire, managers at WDFW will be focusing resources on the site to help ensure the preserve follows a recovery trajectory towards a healthier native ecosystem.  Post fire invasive plant control efforts will be well supported and should help keep weeds like scotch broom, removed by the fire, at bay.  Additionally the fire cleared vegetation on over 300 acres of ground making the seeding of native grasses and flowers both possible and critical to rebuild the habitat for those rare butterflies that occupy the site.  CNLM has been expanding its seed production facilities and building an inventory of native seed in order that large volumes of locally sourced native seed would be available “on demand” for just this type of event.  The combination of these seed reserves and WDFW’s commitment to habitat enhancement are making possible the largest native seeding event ever at that site, with well over 1000 pounds of native seed being spread on the burned area.  Next spring should display an incredible show of native wildflowers with native grasses and perennials following.  Keep your eyes on this landscape over the next few years and watch the habitat recovery in action.  We will also be watching closely for the many butterfly species hit hard by this disaster.  If they found a way to survive the fire they will likely find a much improved habitat in the years to come.

A spider web in the post-fire environment.

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