Wildlife officials work to preserve habitat in Table Rock Fire aftermath

Posted at 10:29 PM, Jul 12, 2016
and last updated 2016-07-13 00:29:38-04

When the Table Rock Fire raced through the foothills, many focused on the homes in the area: the one that was destroyed and others that were spared.

The foothills, though, are home to more than just humans. Around four hundred wildlife species also live there.

Every acre burned in the foothills can be a critical loss in an already shrinking habitat.

"There's still signs of wildlife all around up here, even though it's burned,” Krista Muller, a Fish and Game wildlife biologist, said.

Muller spends most of her time working to preserve and rehabilitate habitat in the 47,000 acre Boise River Wildlife Management Area.

On the day she spoke to Six on Your Side’s Steve Liebenthal she was assessing the damage to a part of that area consumed by the Table Rock Fire. It's a part of the foothills she knows well, because she has spent countless hours working to improve habitat here.

"When you lose a thousand acres, or even five acres to a fire, and it's acreage you've been working on for the last couple of years, it can be devastating," Muller said.

When fire raged through this part of the Wildlife Management Area, it destroyed many of the plants that help support literally hundreds of species, revealing evidence of some of the animals that call this landscape home.

"With all of the vegetation burned away, it's easy to pick out the many trails here in the WMA that support hundreds of elk and one of the strongest mule deer populations in Southern Idaho," Muller said.

As many as eight thousand mule deer travel to this low elevation habitat. It’s crucial to their winter survival.

 As development expands, every acre of winter range becomes more crucial, and every acre burned becomes a more significant loss in an ever-shrinking habitat.

"Those animals have nowhere else to go,” Muller said. “It's the last low elevation area they have to come to. If they don't come here, they don't survive."

Muller is finding at least some good news here: the roots of some plants were spared due to the relatively low heat of the table rock fire, and firefighters were able to stop it before it destroyed tens of thousands of acres of critical habitat.

Muller says any fire that negates her hard work can be frustrating, but while naturally occurring fire is an inherent part of the ecosystem, avoidable fires caused by careless people can be hard to stomach.

"If it happened from lightning, you're like, okay, we can deal with that, that's going to happen,” she said. “But when it's human caused and could have been prevented, that makes it even harder."

Muller hopes those who started the fire might join volunteers who will no doubt be working this land over several years trying to restore what was destroyed in a matter of hours.

Fish and Game will be looking for volunteers to assist with the rehab effort this fall and winter. Those volunteers will help spread native grass seeds and hand-plant sage and bitterbrush seedlings.