Still life, with woodpeckers

Post-fire, Blue Mountain goes to the birds



Blue Mountain bursts with a fusion of life and death you can smell. It was nearly three years ago that the only smell wafting from the area was the hot, thick reek of wildfire smoke. More than 7,500 acres, $13 million, four weeks and three destroyed homes later, the Black Mountain fire of 2003—which many Missoulians watched blaze like a big campfire on the edge of town—was over.

Today the mountain could hardly look, sound or smell more different. Charred spires poke into the sky, rising from brilliant beds of fireweed and fire moss. A black-backed woodpecker stuffs grub into his chick’s mouth, high up in a hole of a blackened snag. A few feet farther up the same tree, a set of western bluebird parents deliver food to their young. Amid the stark blacks and reds of burned trees, a host of life—more even than that which existed before the fire—has taken hold.

It’s early on the morning of Saturday, June 17, and UM ornithologist Dick Hutto and Sue Reel, Lolo National Forest wildlife educator, have brought 15 or so binocular-toting locals up to Blue Mountain for a closer look at the birds and plants that crop up only in fire’s aftermath. Here, in this natural laboratory, is an example of what can happen in a forest that’s not subjected to post-fire salvage logging.

It’s not just Hutto and the appreciative public along for the Montana Natural History Center’s morning tour who deem the regeneration of the Black Mountain fire area—named for the lightning-struck peak adjacent to Blue Mountain on which the blaze began—a success: Maggie Pittman, Missoula district ranger for the Lolo National Forest, visited the area June 16 and says she was impressed by what she saw. She and Lolo Supervisor Debbie Austin explain that the decision not to log the area following the fire was based on their comparison of forest priorities, given limited staff and resources.

“In light of everything else, it just didn’t stack up,” Pittman says.

By all accounts, the decision sounds painless, and the on-the-ground results are proving to be an educational goldmine for researchers and the public. But the example close to home belies the national debate raging over the proper place of salvage logging.

In May, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to accelerate logging and replanting in the wake of severe forest impacts like wildfire, insect infestation and hurricanes.

“This legislation will enable us to utilize dead timber instead of letting it go to waste and to responsibly restore the health and diversity of our forests after a catastrophic event like a fire or hurricane,” Washington Democratic Rep. Brian Baird said following the passage of the Forest Emergency Recovery and Research Act.

Now, a similar bill introduced by Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., is working its way through the U.S. Senate. The message from proponents is that the red tape of lengthy environmental reviews is endangering both the value of burned timber and the safety of communities near burned forests.

“An emergency does not end when a fire is contained,” Smith says. “With bugs, disease and deterioration fighting against burnt trees, the emergency is not truly over until the land is healed and on its way to becoming a forest again.”

Hutto views the forest’s recovery process differently. Everywhere he looks, Hutto sees evidence that Blue Mountain is healing swimmingly on its own. He can tell, mainly, by the constant chatter in the trees above. As he talks about the different species his attuned ear catches on the wind, Hutto interrupts himself to mimic a wood peewee or a Hammond’s flycatcher or a yellow-rumped warbler. After a while, he pulls out a palm-sized PDA that holds the songs of nearly 200 birds he’s recorded in the wild over the years. He hooks it up to a small amplifier and shoots the sound up into the trees, drawing curious birds nearer while he explains why they thrive in this specialized environment. The variety and volume of birds in the area lend insight, he says, into the health of the plants, insects and overall state of the Black Mountain area.

The black-backed woodpecker, the only woodpecker with an all-black back, migrates from burn to burn in search of beetles and other insects that similarly flourish in post-burn woods. UM graduate student Jenny Woolf is studying black-backed woodpeckers in the Black Mountain area, as well as in Idaho, Washington and South Dakota, in an attempt to better understand where and when the birds appear, and how groups are interrelated. This year, Hutto says, she’s caught and tagged 14 of them on a section of Blue Mountain, about twice as many as last year. When areas are salvage-logged, Hutto says, black-backed woodpeckers disappear from the landscape due to the removal of dead trees, which host both the bird and its food supply.

Hutto and others have been surveying birds in the Black Mountain fire area and nearly 20 other 2003 fire sites from Glacier National Park down to the Bitterroot, some of which have been salvage-logged. Nearly all woodpeckers have proven absent from salvaged areas, Hutto says, and all other bird species are less abundant in those spots than in areas left unlogged following fires.

“I can’t think of any other land-use practice where it’s uniformly negative, at least in terms of birds,” Hutto says. “That’s why I end up thinking that a burned place should be lower on our priority list for logging—because it’s so sensitive.”

Hutto’s research is some of the first post-fire work that’s been done in areas broader than one forest or one salvage-logging job, which may help it yield insightful facts for policymakers as they struggle to find a balance for post-fire salvage logging nationwide. In March, Hutto went to Washington, D.C., to spread some of his knowledge in anticipation of the debate, though the 243-182 approval of the salvage-logging act followed soon after. Hutto says more intimate, on-the-ground education, like the tour he led June 17, may change more minds than anything else will.

“Most of us look at that and see a scar,” Hutto says, pointing at the scorched mountainside. “After a 30-minute walk, we see it as a beauty mark.”


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