Posts Tagged ‘yellowstone’

Fires of Yellowstone – Life from the Ashes

June 2, 2010

YNP fire 1988 - used by permission

The summers of 1986 and ’87 were uncommonly wet. The following spring of 1988 sent more rain than usual into the Yellowstone ecosystem. Plants lapped it up and grew beautifully. Then came the drought. All that new plant growth slid to a halt and dried out. Plentiful dry fuels, hot temperatures, summer lightening storms set up a deadly combination.

The park service had adopted a “natural suppression” policy (a.k.a. “let burn”) in 1972. Overall, for the next several years it seemed to work. Fires were typically small and extinguished themselves when they ran out of fuel or other conditions prevented them from burning. Then, in 1988, 20 early fires had started and only 11 of them had put themselves out. By July, a few were still burning and had reached up to 99k acres within the park. The “natural suppression” policy was pushed aside in favor of intervention. Unfortunately, some of the fire fighting methods they used backfired. Prescribed burns intended to rob the uncontrolled blazes of fuel got out of control themselves and only exacerbated the problem.

The fires were getting out of hand and the worst was yet to come. Winds in August blew flames into 150,000 acres in a single day – the worst fire day of the season. Fire fighters were at a loss. It wasn’t until the snow started falling in September that they finally began to make headway. By the time it was over, more than 1.2 million acres were burned, 1/3 of it outside the park boundaries. Almost 800,000 acres, thirty-six percent of the park was charred.

We know that fire is a natural part of wildlife. It’s necessary, it’s beneficial (within reason, of course). The fire releases new life, especially in the trees. Seeds from tree species like spruce, lodgepole and others burst into germination. The soil was enriched with new nutrients all brought in the ash.

More recent (?) fire damage

Today, some 22 years later, the regrowth is nothing short of phenomenal.

22 y.o. growth after burn

Trees grow thick where once was just scorched earth. Intermingled are black and gray spikes – skeletons of the dead, ever-present reminders of what used to be there. Still, these are being slowly swallowed up in the green velvet of the new forests.

There are groves of young trees in some areas that are so thick as to make you wonder how on earth they can be thinned out enough to allow healthy growth of only a few. In some instances, forest service personnel will come in with chain saws when the trees are older and selectively thin them out, allowing the healthiest to grow properly. Other than that, I couldn’t say. Perhaps they do some of that on their own. These seem to have done well enough without a lot of help.

Not all stands are regrowing as quickly. One section of Douglas

This stand of Douglas Fir was almost completely consumed.

Fir was virtually wiped out and is still rather barren. Usually the thick bark of the Doug Fir protects it from fire. But these fires raged so incredibly hot that even these trees weren’t safe. Their regrowth has been painfully slow.

Interpretive Sign explaining damage to the forest.

There is no easy solution to the threat of wildfire. Man has interfered for so long the forest can no longer manage itself. As with so many things we have manipulated, we have likely gone so far that we have no option to turn it around. Our hands are in the mix. All we can do now is try not to make any more of a mess.

Source: National Park Service –


Memorial Weekend in Yellowstone

June 2, 2010

To visit Yellowstone National Park on Memorial Weekend is to spend a weekend of rain, snow and wind inside your tent or camper, wondering why on earth you thought this time would be any different. But the wonders of YNP are so far beyond the scope of weather, that all the snow can do is enhance it – if you’re lucky enough to have a working heater!

From Bozeman, the nearest entrance to the park is the North entrance by Gardiner. So, of course, we headed south to West Yellowstone and the West entrance. I’m so glad we did! For some reason that we can only guess at, the bison cows were on the move. They may have been migrating, they may have been asked to move by the rangers. Who knows? But move they did – by the hundreds! In the dark of night, a miles-long stretch of cows and calves made their way across roads and past the lake. I don’t know where they had come from or where they were heading. All I know is we saw more drop calves (none more than a week old and many probably less than that) with their mamas in one night than we’ll likely ever see again in our lives.

Taking pictures of bison calves in the dark while in a pickup is not easy! Most cows stayed between their babies and the lines of cars. This is about the best I could do.

Young bison calf at night

We didn’t see too many cows and calves any other time through the weekend. There were several scattered bulls, some alone, some with one or two others, but rarely any more little ones.  Single bulls quite frequently, in fact, decided that they needed the road to get where they were going as well. After all, the roads were built for them. (If you disagree, DON’T try to convince the bison of this! They don’t generally lose an arguement.) Of course, traffic backs up even more when people think that one bull in the road or off to the side is the only one they’ll see through out their entire trip. We saw countless clusters of half a dozen cars all parked to take pictures of some obscure bull bison 1/4 mile out in a field. Guess I’m just a bit pickier about my subjects. Not much, but a bit.

Bull bison sharing the road. Photo by Jeff Linehan.

These things weigh upwards of 2,000 lbs. I’m not sure my car weighs that much! One time when Rich and I were first married and I was driving truck with him, we went through Custer Nat’l Park in SD. As usual, there were a few bison outside of the boundaries. (like the beasties really care!) Rich pulled the Freightliner over so he could “go see it.”

Say what??

He actually got out and went right up to the thing. And this bull was HUGE! Probably closer to 3,000 lbs.  Now all over the parks out here are signs warning idiot tourists (like us) to stay away from the bison, that they are wild and unpredictable. So, of course Rich walked right up to it and around the other side. All I could see of my new husband was the top of his head and his waving arms. (Rich stands 6’7″, so that gives a bit of an idea how massive this creature was.) I’m thinking, “Does our life insurance cover acts of lunacy?”

Fortunately, the bison really couldn’t have cared less who was standing where. He was just mosying his way along the side of the road and wasn’t about to give Rich the time of day…thank heavens!

We saw more elk than any bow hunter ever should out of season. The bulls were in velvet – some with nubs, some with more.

Bull elk in velvet

No calves that I could see.  A little disappointing. Elk calves are tall, leggy and very awkward when they’re new. Beautiful! Also didn’t see any moose. That would have been fun.

Rich kept hoping to see some grizzley or wolves. There had been numerous grizzley sightings, at least in the eastern part of the park. But we never saw any. Did see one young black bear, probably about two years old. He was just sitting up on a hillside, minding his own business. Didn’t pay any attention to the throngs of visitors snapping photos of him.

We also saw some pretty impressive grizzley tracks in the snow. Not something I’d be too inclined to follow.

There were a few other animals – numerous herons and raptors, crows by the hundreds! I don’t know rodents that well, but there was some fat, furry thing that looked like a squirrel ate a volleyball. It was living in the geyser area near Old Faithful. Someone called it a rock chuck. I don’t think it looked that much like them, but who knows?

For those who remember the massive fires in 1988, I’ll post photos of the regrowth on another blog entry. It is looking really good! There have been more recent fires, of course, and they are barely starting to grow in. You’ll see the contrast.