Lois Olsen, in a recent column claims that I was wrong to quote credible scientific studies that conclude “sagebrush only burns every 100 to 200 years, while juniper burns on average every 200 to 400 years.” The problem is that the “alternative facts” Olsen relies on came from a contracted Forest Service internal report, not credible, peer-reviewed studies. Readers deserve to see what real scientists have to say.
Olsen cites an internal, contracted Forest Service report on the Elkhorns to claim that “… grasslands and shrublands burn every 10-20 years and savannas (sparsely forested grassland/shrublands) 10-25 years .…”
It’s no surprise Olsen conveniently neglected to mention that the Forest Service report was not a credible, peer-reviewed, published study. Peer review is defined as a “process by which a scholarly work (such as a paper or a research proposal) is checked by a group of experts in the same field to make sure it meets the necessary standards before it is published or accepted.”
Here are the real facts from scientifically peer-reviewed studies:
1. Baker and Shinneman. 2004. Fire rotation for high-severity fire in juniper is estimated at 400-480 years.
2. Floyd and others. 2004. Stand replacing fires in juniper 400 years or longer.
3. Bauer and Weisberg. 2009. The fire cycle in pinyon-juniper was estimated at 427 years.
Specifically addressing conifers in sagebrush, this published study by Burkowski and Baker in 2013 concludes: Historical fire rotations for mountain big sagebrush were 137-217, and 171-342 years for Wyoming big sagebrush (both of which are in the Elkhorns); historical sagebrush was dominated by large, contiguous stands, with one-fourth being very dense; there were large expanses of sagebrush with trees historically present, including naturally-occurring transitions between woodlands and sagebrush ecosystems.
The Forest Service wanted “scientific” support for their plans to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer’s dollars to cut down native junipers and burn sagebrush habitat in the Elkhorns. And they got what they paid for. What they didn’t get was a credible scientific paper.
Olsen goes on to falsely claim that junipers are “invasive” trees that grow so thick they destroy habitat for wildlife and don’t belong in the Elkhorns. But juniper, like sagebrush, is a native species that was collected by Meriwether Lewis when he traveled through Montana two centuries ago.
Juniper’s extremely dense foliage provides food as well as hiding and thermal cover for a number of wildlife species including elk, mule deer, whitetail deer, bighorn sheep and antelope. The lack of elk security on public land is a major issue in Montana, since elk move on to private lands during hunting season due to the lack of hiding cover on public lands. Junipers also produce up to 20,000 berries per square meter of foliage providing high-energy food for wildlife, migratory birds, wild turkeys and upland game birds throughout fall and winter.
Olsen also ignored the well-documented fact that cutting and burning juniper and sagebrush across the West only invites cheat grass invasions. Cheat grass, unlike native juniper and sagebrush, is a noxious weed that has proven almost impossible to eradicate. It’s extremely flammable, hurts critical sage grouse recovery efforts and doesn’t benefit cattle or wildlife as Olsen claimed because cattle and big game won’t eat cheat grass after it dries out in early Spring.
The Elkhorn Wildlife Management Unit was congressionally established to be managed to benefit wildlife as its single highest priority, not to grow more grass for cattle or produce “merchantable” timber. Olsen’s facetious citation of an internal agency report simply doesn’t provide credible science to support the destruction of Montana’s native sagebrush-juniper ecosystems in the Elkhorns.