Bull Draw reseed

A scene from the Bull Draw Fire last summer, outside Nucla. (Courtesy photo)

Wildfires are notorious for eviscerating everything in their paths.

Yet ironically, the Bull Draw Fire is likely to help save local animals — for generations.

The fire grew from a lightning strike last July near Nucla into a blaze that ultimately torched 36,553 acres. Jim Garner, a habitat coordinator for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, had been studying that acreage for years. It was critical winter habitat for mule deer — animals whose population was in steep decline.

The number of mule deer in Game Management Unit 61, on the south side of the Uncompahgre Plateau, had fallen 75 percent since 1980, Garner said. The reason was a mystery.

“There was no oil-and-gas development” there, Garner recalled, “no residential development, and a not a lot of mining anymore.”

No disruptive reasons, in short, for Colorado’s iconic ungulate, dubbed “muleys” for their floppy, donkey-like ears, to disappear. And yet they were.

“We decided there had to be issues with the habitat” itself, Garner said.

He spent 18 months conducting field surveys to determine exactly which native grasses and shrubs — desperately needed by hungry ungulates in winter — were in scarce supply. In truth, “There’d been overgrazing” on that barren stretch of the plateau “since the late 1880s,” Garner said. “It’s not even good livestock forage there. There’s nothing but trees and dirt.”

A year ago last October, Garner took his reseeding proposal into the Uncompaghre Field Office of the BLM, but the project had gone nowhere. Until the Bull Draw fire, that is. Where there was once meager forage for animals for decades, there was now virtually none. Which was, ironically, good news. With a single lightning bolt, “Fire wiped the slate clean,” Garner said. It was now an ideal time, and place, for reseeding.

Likely as you’re reading this — the operation was scheduled to begin Sunday, weather permitting, and last for three or four days — a pair of low-flying cropdusters, guided by GPS coordinates, will be releasing seeds over a section of the mule deer’s decimated winter range in a joint project between the BLM, CPW and the Mule Deer Foundation. A local rancher who grazes cattle on this federally owned land is helping, too — he’ll be installing fencing around the replanted areas. The fence will act as a barrier to protect tender young plants from being eaten too soon.

In a news release, BLM Uncompahgre Field Office Manager Greg Larson hailed the project as “a shining example of shared stewardship, which benefits the environment, our communities and the local economy.” Such partnerships are not rare. “We work together all the time” with Parks and Wildlife, the Mule Deer Foundation and local grazing permitees, said Gloria Tibbetts, associate district manager for the BLM’s Southwest District. “This one’s a little bit of a unique opportunity, because we usually don’t have big acreage scorched by wildfire this way.”

As for why a reseeding operation should be taking place right now, while there is still snow on the ground, “they like to drop it into snow because of the moisture,” CPW spokesman Joe Lewandowski said. “Then the seed settles down, and takes root.”

Garner expects it will take two growing seasons before the carefully selected (and precisely placed) native seeds develop into grasses and shrubs suitable for winter forage. Generations of animals stand to benefit, not just mule deer and elk, but also the leasee’s cattle.

 “It will be a boon to him,” Garner said. “He’ll have to be patient. He’ll have to wait two years. But the new growth will be good for his animals, too. We’ll be out there monitoring the new growth pretty closely this spring,” he added, “and praying for rain.”

Out of 36,000 acres consumed by the Bull Draw fire, 5,000 will be reseeded. “The rest of the acreage was at a higher elevation, where there’s more precipitation. It will probably come back on its own,” Garner said. “People don’t generally think of fires as a good thing, but in this instance, it was natural. Mother Nature lit the match, and gave us a reset.”