CHEYENNE, Wyo. — A 3,700-acre wildfire burned through an area of south-central Wyoming where bighorn sheep had been reintroduced, and while there’s no evidence that any sheep died, biologists say it isn’t yet known whether the fire helped or hurt the vegetation that supports them.
“It’s right smack dab where the sheep are, but it’s also right where we were hoping to have a prescribed burn in two or three years,” state biologist Greg Hiatt said. “So it’s just going to be a question whether or not it burned too hot for what we’d like to see in the middle of the summer instead of either a spring or fall burn like we typically do.”
The Seminoe fire began on July 21 and is now contained, but the fire is still burning inside the containment lines.
Fire spokeswoman Shelley Gregory said Wednesday that firefighters reported seeing one sheep in the area, but fire managers had not received any reports of bighorn sheep lost to the fire.
“The way the fire traveled the sheep just did what they normally would do and travel up the rocky canyons and that pretty much offered them protection from the fire,” Gregory said. “When you’re on the rocks there’s no vegetation to burn, so that’s probably the safest place to be anyway.”
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department transplanted 52 bighorn sheep to the area in 2009 and 2010. Hiatt said there could be up to 80 sheep there now.
Hiatt said studies have shown that sheep are adept at escaping wildfires.
“The human activity they don’t like, but the fire doesn’t seem to bother them,” he said.
What’s unclear is whether the fire helped or hurt the sheep habitat.
Biologists intentionally set fires in 2010 and earlier this year to help rejuvenate old plants that sheep and other wildlife feed on, Hiatt said. But the prescribed fires were done in the spring, when it was cooler, and the fire didn’t burn as hot as it would burn during the summer, he said.
“Fire is an interesting thing, and like I said we try to do this in the spring or in the fall when it’s cooler and so the fire doesn’t sit in one spot and cook down into the soil and kill the roots of the plants or all the seeds,” Hiatt said. “I suspect that we probably won’t even know until we get some moisture and look at it next spring to see how much actually survived and what recovery we’re going to get.”
In the spring of 2011, the prescribed burn was followed by plentiful moisture, resulting in “grasses that were a foot higher or more within a month after the burn,” he said.
However, drought conditions persist this summer.
“Moisture really makes the determining factor of how quickly these things come back,” Hiatt said.
Separately, firefighters have gained 47 percent containment on another 2,800-acre wildfire burning in the Ferris Mountain west of the Seminoe fire, Gregory said.
The Seminoe fire was started by lightning, while the cause of the Ferris fire is under investigation.