A hundred acres of public land north of Navajo Dam will become prime elk habitat thanks to a $4,500 contribution from the Farmington Chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
“Without the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s funding support, projects like this might not be possible,” said John Hansen, wildlife biologist for the Bureau of Land Management Farmington Field Office. The project is on BLM land.
Hansen was at the project site on December 4, when 10 firefighters assigned to the BLM Farmington District Office were conducting a controlled burn of the 100 acres - the project’s second phase. The first phase was thinning pinyon and juniper trees up to five inches in diameter, in the fall of 2011, to create space for grass seeding, forbs, and browse that elk eat. Dried out small trees were now being set on fire, to create a bed of ash for the seeding ‒ the project’s third phase.
The weight of snow will push seeds into the ash where they will germinate in the spring. By protecting the seeds, the ash will also reduce the amount of seed eaten by birds, rodents, and insects. In addition, the controlled burn phase of the project reduces vegetation prior to seeding so that newly planted, desirable grasses, forbs, and browse will have less competition from other plants for available moisture and nutrients in the soil.
“This enables us to create a more balanced plant community,” Hansen said.
During the December 4 controlled burn, BLM firefighters spread out with 1.5-gallon, drip torches - metal containers that looked like small fire extinguishers - except these containers shoot a mixture of gasoline and diesel fuel used for starting fires. Some very large pinyon trees went up in flames so fast and so intensely that the sound of flames soaring high above the forest sounded like a freight train coming through. Burning a few of the big pinyon and juniper trees was unavoidable. Firefighters kept flames away from the vast majority of the big trees.
“The objective of the burn is to create a mosaic of areas that are dominated by grasses and forbs that are interspersed with the trees,” Hansen said. Pinyon and juniper trees protected by firefighters during the burn will provide cover for wildlife and produce pinyon nuts and juniper berries eaten by bears, turkeys and songbirds. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s $4,500 contribution for the project paid the salaries of the firefighters and for the use of their equipment and vehicles. Most of the labor was for the 2011 tree thinning in preparation for the burn. The tree thinning took BLM firefighters a week. The controlled burn was done in two days. The State Department of Game and Fish paid for seed.
Doris Horvath, spokeswoman for the Farmington chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, said wildlife living in or near the project area, or migrating through the area, will benefit from improved wildlife habitat.
“Our focus is on improving elk habitat, but the project benefits all the animals from big to little, including turkey, deer and bears,” Horvath said. The project is the third of its kind on BLM land in recent years that has been funded by the Farmington chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Horvath said that when areas of public land are evaluated for conservation projects, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation consults with land management agencies that include the BLM, Forest Service, tribal government land management agencies and the State Department of Game and Fish.