The Sierra Forest Voice
Vol. 14, No. 2, September 3, 2021
Another extreme wildfire season is sweeping across our state. Once the fires are out and the smoke has cleared, Sierra Nevada forest managers will begin assessing whether, where, and how reforestation work will occur. Within the perimeters of recent fires, we are witness to larger and larger patches of high severity fire, as forests transition from past to current climate conditions. Across these post-fire landscapes, there is a clear need for a well-supported, science-based approach to management of the burned forests.
Yet, despite considerable scientific advances in our understanding of Sierra Nevada forest ecology over the past thirty years, there have been relatively few changes to reforestation methods employed by the Forest Service. Questions and concerns remain regarding the postfire mortality baseline used to assess acreage of reforestation need, the ecological effects of densely planting large fire-contiguous blocks of the landscape, heavy reliance on herbicides to control all competing native vegetation, and lack of resilience to fire, insects, and disease of densely stocked plantations.
Image above: Burned plantation in King Fire, Eldorado National Forest. Image 2014 by Vivian Parker. Plantations--pines in lines--have since been re-installed across thousands of acres in this area.
The vast acreage of forests dramatically altered by recent wildfires present opportunities to recalibrate our restoration practices. Two important publications provide comprehensive summaries of alternative reforestation approaches and rationale for adopting them. The most recent of the two, Postfire Restoration Framework for National Forests in California (GTR-270, 2021) presents a detailed decision-making framework for planning and implementing postfire restoration actions across forests, chaparral, and grasslands, and includes case studies for each, as well as more specific information and guidance throughout its appendices.
The second publication, Tamm review: Reforestation for resilience in dry western U.S. forests (North et al. 2019), presents alternative reforestation processes that consider micro-site and microclimatic conditions, and climate change, when considering where replanting can be most effective. The proposed model incorporates early and repeated application of fire to manage replanted areas, and recommends avoiding reforestation in ways that discourage or prevent use of prescribed or managed fire in and around replanted areas. This publication was reviewed more thoroughly in an earlier edition of the Sierra Nevada Voice (Vol. 11:4, December 2018) which you can access here.
Together, GTR-270 and Reforestation for Resilience provide foundational information for a reforestation strategy that can guide where and when to reforest (GTR-270), and provide alternative designs and rationale for how to replant disturbed areas (North et al. 2019). Both recognize that the current climate era and best available science related to fire regimes and frequencies in much of California point to the need for a serious and detailed recalibration of actions, plans, and strategies that can maintain forested landscapes that not only survive disturbances, but can also build resilience and stabilize forest carbon.
Some of the key elements identified in GTR-270 are listed below.
Six science-based principles:
- Restore key ecological processes
- Consider landscape context
- Promote regional native biodiversity
- Sustain diverse ecosystem services
- Establish a prioritization approach for management interventions
- Incorporate adaptation to agents of change
- An interdisciplinary team of specialists identifies priority resources, desired conditions, and restoration goals.
- The team gathers and analyzes relevant spatial data and other information to evaluate current and potential future landscape conditions.
- The team uses a postfire flowchart to identify restoration opportunities.
- The team develops a list of potential management actions that are linked to these opportunities.
- The team builds a suite of potential restoration actions that support landscape restoration goals (“restoration portfolio”) by prioritizing actions based on feasibility and constraints.
SFL together with the Fire Restoration Group recently recommended that these two reports be used to inform the statewide Reforestation Strategy that is currently being drafted by the California Wildfire and Forest Resilience Task Force (formerly the California Forest Management Task Force).
We compiled (see Table 1, below) some examples of where and how planning and implementing of alternative reforestation practices in Sierra Nevada forests have already begun. While most were prepared prior to publication of either North et al., 2019 or GTR-270 (2021), each includes (or will include) concepts and approaches covered in the latter two publications.
While there may be other examples elsewhere in California, each of these examples represent in their own way on-going efforts to improve our approach to reforestation in Sierra Nevada forests that must be incorporated at all scales, from stand-level replanting to, ultimately, a statewide Reforestation Strategy.
As this issue of the Sierra Forest Voice goes to publication, the Caldor Fire continues to expand, consuming more of the Eldorado National Forest with each passing day. Will our response to California's seemingly endless vistas of tree-less postfire landscapes be to double down on creating dense, homogeneously packed and fire-prone plantations in the name of carbon sequestration and timber production? Or do we recalibrate reforestation goals and objectives to manage for ecological integrity first, from which all else follows? As the California Natural Resource Agency and the US Forest Service jointly contribute to the preparation of the draft Statewide Reforestation Strategy, due for publication in the fall of 2021, the answers to these questions remain open, as do opportunities to recalibrate our approach to postfire reforestation.
We at Sierra Forest Legacy envision a change of perspective regarding reforestation, where we move away from an approach preoccupied with getting pines in the ground to one focused more on restoring and maintaining the ecological integrity of forest landscapes. This can happen when USFS Region 5 leadership fosters a culture of integrating best science with management expertise within the Forest Service, together with the on-going work of forest collaboratives driving changes in post-disturbance practices from the ground up.
Meyer, M.D.; Long, J.W.; Safford, H.D., eds. 2021. Postfire restoration framework for national forests in California. Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW-GTR-270. Albany, CA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station. 204 p.
During his first week in office, Forest Service Chief Randy Moore announced a national policy prohibiting fire managers from managing wildfires for resource objectives (commonly called “managed wildfires”) or lightning prescribed burns throughout most of the country. This decision puts on hold more than a decade of sound fire-forward policies that Moore himself has endorsed. While we acknowledge that conditions in many areas are not currently appropriate for managed fire, it is disappointing that the agency’s first response to these extreme conditions is to curb fire managers’ ability to consider two of the most effective tools available for forest restoration.
Wildfires managed for resources objectives are lightning-ignited fires that are allowed to burn under carefully evaluated conditions where public health and safety are not threatened, and fire effects are predicted to be beneficial to forest health. As with full-suppression wildfires, adequate firefighting resources must be available to safely suppress a fire if needed, and protecting firefighter and public safety, minimizing the risk of loss of life, damage to property, or environmental resources are the highest priorities.
Research from Yosemite and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks shows that the National Park Service’s 50+ year managed wildfire program has had profound effects for improving forests’ resilience to wildfire, drought, and climate change. According to Forest Service data, approximately 238,540 acres of wildfire management met resource objectives within areas with existing NEPA between 2016 and 2020.
The agency’s decision to halt managed wildfire followed criticism of the agency’s fire response from elected officials including Representative Tom McClintock and Governor Newsom. These politicians and others falsely claimed that the Forest Service has a “let it burn” policy (it doesn’t) and that this policy is to blame for the escalating wildfire impacts experienced in California so for this season.
These concerns originated with the Tamarack Fire, which was ignited by lightning in early July. Because of resource constraints, the Forest Service had originally made the tactical decision to monitor this fire rather than suppress it immediately. Strong winds eventually blew Tamarack more than five miles eastward into Alpine County, where it destroyed over a dozen structures and caused hazardous levels of smoke in populated areas like Carson City and Reno.
While the Tamarack Fire was a highly negative outcome that could have and should have been prevented, it is important to note that it was not a managed wildfire or an escaped prescribed burn. In fact, had the Forest Service wanted to manage this fire for resource objectives, they would have been required to guarantee that adequate resources like wildland fire modules would be available and committed to the fire.
The decision to halt managed wildfire caught the attention of fire scientists and retired federal fire managers alike. Both of these groups have direct experience either working on or studying managed wildfires, and both have direct knowledge of the dire need for more beneficial fire on our landscapes. On August 10th, a group of 41 scientists sent a letter to Chief Moore requesting that he modify the order and restore wildfire decision-making to local forests and ranger districts. The scientists emphasized that total fire suppression is not possible in our fire-adapted forests, pointing to decades of research confirming the need for fire restoration.
The scientists’ letter was followed closely by a second letter from four career federal fire managers, who made a similar request of the agency. The authors emphasized how past managed wildfire footprints had helped contain more severe wildfires that burned under undesirable conditions, pointing to recent examples on the Inyo and Sierra National Forests.
As the 2021 fire season continues to become one of California’s worst on record, it is understandable that the idea of “good fire” makes people nervous. It is important to understand that supporters of managed wildfire (including SFL) are not advocating that the Forest Service or anyone else allow a wildfire to burn when it might threaten life or property.
However, by committing to a policy of total fire suppression in our frequent-fire forests, we are committing ourselves to only experiencing wildfires during the most extreme conditions. There will always be a certain amount of risk involved in any decisions made about wildfire management. Even in full suppression fires, there are some areas that fire crews cannot access safely or effectively. When conditions are appropriate, under less extreme conditions, managing fire for resource benefits allows our forests to recover from over a century of fire suppression and mismanagement. Managed wildfire is one of our best tools to help curb the impacts of megafires like those that California is currently experiencing. It is important that the agency not let short-sighted political pressures steer their management strategy over the long term.
The letter from fire managers is here.
The letter from fire scientists is here.
In June 2021, Randy Moore was appointed Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, replacing retiring Chief Vicki Christiansen. Since 2007, Moore has led California and Hawaii as Regional Forester for Region 5, the Pacific Southwest region.
We came to know Randy and his leadership style through quarterly meetings we organized with his regional staff and the environmental community. Randy has a deep respect for collaboration and the effort that people make to work together. In Region 5, he also hired thoughtful and creative people to fill leadership positions. Combined, these factors have resulted in staff leaders in Region 5 who are accessible to stakeholders and willing to problem solve—two very helpful attributes during this time of environmental change. We look forward to working with Randy in his new role leading the Forest Service from Washington, D.C. You can read the welcome letter that we sent to him here.
To ensure that there was no gap in leadership in the region, Jennifer Eberlien was selected in July 2021 to be the new Regional Forester for the Pacific Southwest Region. Her formal education is in anthropology and archaeology. She began her federal career as an archaeological technician with the USDA Forest Service in Wisconsin. She has served in various roles, including heritage program manager, national recreation fee coordinator, and forest supervisor. She also served for a time as deputy regional forester for public services in Region 5. We look forward to getting to know Jennifer and working with her conserving national forests in the Sierra Nevada.
Image above: Randy Moore, USFS; image right: Jennifer Eberlien, USFS
Update on 2021 Wildfire Season
Already in 2021 there have been several large wildfires and thousands of houses and structures lost. As of this writing, the Dixie Fire that began on July 13 has burned over 868,000 acres in the Lassen National Park, Lassen National Forest, and the Plumas National Forest, as well as private land in Butte, Plumas, Lassen, Tehama and Shasta Counties. The fire is currently 55 percent contained and is now the second largest fire ever recorded in California’s history (last year’s August Complex, at 1,032,648 acres is the state’s largest fire overall).
The Caldor Fire in the Eldorado National Forest, El Dorado and Alpine Counties began on August 14 and has already burned 213,000 acres and is 29 percent contained.
Our deepest sympathies go out to the residents and communities that have lost homes and property, and all who are suffering from these wildfires. Smoke from the fires continues to be unhealthy throughout most of northern California, with no end in sight. Due to the extreme temperatures and lack of rainfall, we expect heightened wildfire conditions into at least October this year.
Here are some links that you can use to track the wildfire situation in California and elsewhere:
The Lookout (the-lookout.org). This excellent new website created by our friend Zeke Lunder contains daily updated fire analysis mapping, and is reporting now on the Dixie and Caldor Fires.
InciWeb – incident information system This site tracks fires on federal lands and some fires on private lands.
CAL FIRE Incident Map This site tracks fires on state and private lands and some fires on federal lands.
ALERT Wildfire This site offers a collection of cameras used to detect fire activity in real time.
CA Fire Scanner Twitter feed has real-time information on firefighting efforts throughout the state.
20 largest fires in California’s history This site managed by CAL FIRE offers an up to date list of the largest 20 wildfires.
FIRMS-NASA/Forest Service This site allows you to view real time satellite mapping of infrared heat intensity, allowing you to track fire and spotting activity when it happens.
Experimental smoke forecast for Northern California this site is hosted by the National Weather Service.
EPA Fire and Smoke Map (https://fire.airnow.gov/) EPA and its partners developed this smoke and fire map for the nation. You can check on air quality for your location, and view the latest wildfire smoke data from this site.
Purple Air Mapping air quality from the company Purple Air. This site offers air quality sensors that a community of citizen scientists use to collect hyper-local, real-time air quality data and share it on a map that is accessible to everyone.
Here's some things for you to watch, read, and listen to when you have a few minutes. We hope you are all staying well, staying indoors, and wish you and your loved ones good health during these trying times.
Research Briefs from the California Fire Science Consortium.
Learn about the work of the Cultural Fire Management Council, a community based organization furthering fire use and cultural resource management on Yurok and ancestral tribal lands.
Meet the People Burning California to Save It New York Times, July 29, 2021.
Oregon’s Bootleg fire has offered new evidence that Indigenous techniques can change how megafires behave. The Guardian, August 12, 2021.
Dry Forests: The Ecological Applications article “Evidence for Widespread Changes in the Structure, Composition, and Fire Regimes of Western North American Forests” (prepublication pdf). The authors conclude that “there can be little doubt that the long-term deficit of abundant low- to moderate-severity fire has contributed to modification of seasonally dry forested landscapes across western North America.” See also the ScienceDaily digest of the article.
Jonathan Kusel in the Sacramento Bee: Dixie Fire isn’t just destroying towns. California’s water and power supply is under threat. Sacramento Bee, August 25, 2021.
Fire Facts Story Board presented by the Northwest Fire Science Consortium is a great teaching tool for anyone wishing to learn or share basic information about fire and fire behavior in the western states. Terminology is defined and illustrated with video and photos.
Sierra Forest Legacy is now on Twitter. Follow us at @LegacySierra for updates on forest conservation and fire restoration in the Sierra, as it happens.
Blakey, R.V., Webb, E.B., Kesler, D.C., Siegel, R.B., Corcoran, D. and Johnson, M., 2019. Bats in a changing landscape: Linking occupancy and traits of a diverse montane bat community to fire regime. Ecology and Evolution, 9(9), pp.5324-5337.
Blakey, R.V., Webb, E.B., Kesler, D.C., Siegel, R.B., Corcoran, D., Cole, J.S. and Johnson, M., 2021. Extent, configuration and diversity of burned and forested areas predict bat richness in a fire-maintained forest. Landscape Ecology, 36(4), pp.1101-1115.
Steel, Z.L., Campos, B., Frick, W.F., Burnett, R. and Safford, H.D., 2019. The effects of wildfire severity and pyrodiversity on bat occupancy and diversity in fire-suppressed forests. Scientific Reports, 9(1), pp.1-11.
Insectivorous bats are important predators in forest ecosystems and contribute to the health and diversity of the forest, consuming approximately their body weight in insects each night. They are highly mobile predators able to respond to changes in forest structure and burned conditions based on their echo-location calls and other physical traits. Bats in the forests of the Sierra Nevada evolved in ecosystems experiencing frequent fire. How these key predators respond to forest environments altered by fire suppression, increases in area burned, and climate change are the topics of three papers discussed here.
Scientists have been using acoustic monitoring to detect bats in burned and forested environments in the Sierra Nevada. Zachary Steel and his colleagues (Steel et al. 2019) characterized the diversity of the post-fire landscape (“pyrodiversity”) and evaluated occupancy and species richness for a suite of 17 bat species detected in their study area. They found that occupancy rates increase with burn severity for 6 species and occupancy rates for 2 other species declined. Species richness increased from 8 species in unburned forest to 11 in areas with pyrodiversity (see Figure 6 from the paper, below). One conclusion from this research was that too little pyrodiversity, i.e., not enough low-moderate-high severity fire, would result in reduced bat diversity.
Rachel Blakey and her colleagues also examined how bats interact with burned and unburned forests. Their work from 2019 (Blakey et al. 2019) found that bats had acoustic and morphological adaptations to diverse forest structure. For instance, bats emitting calls for a longer duration and narrow bandwidth that facilitated their foraging in open habitats were associated with higher severity and more frequent fires. Figure 5 from their paper illustrates some of the adaptations.
Given the association of different bat species with different post-wildfire environments, Blakey and colleagues sought to understand how patterns and arrangements of burned and unburned forest might change bat diversity (Blakey et al 2021). Pairing acoustic surveys to determine occupancy with landscape variables that characterized pyrodiversity, they found that bat species richness was associated with landscapes that were variable or heterogeneous. The highest bat richness was associated with patchier forest, with high edge density and lower overall cover.
These studies found that bat communities were largely resilient to wildfire and adapted to more heterogenous forests and shorter-interval fire regimes that likely predominated before the current fire suppression era. The results also indicated that without sufficient pyrodiversity, occupancy of specific bat species might decline. Similarly, low or no amounts of less disturbed and more uniform habitats could result in a decline in other bat species.
Image above: Bobcat (Lynx rufus) by Roberta Frederick
The bobcat is one of four species globally in the genus Lynx (from Indo-European root word for light or brightness). All lynx have short—or “bobbed”—tails. Two lynx are native to Europe: the Iberian lynx, native to the Iberian peninsula in southwestern Europe and considered rare (primarily Spain and Portugal); and the Eurasian lynx, native to Northern, Central and Eastern Europe to Central Asia and Siberia, the Tibetan Plateau and the Himalayas. Despite its widespread distribution, the Eurasian lynx is endangered with extinction in much of its former range, due to habitat loss and targeted eradication by people.
Here in North America, the Canada lynx is native to Canada and Alaska, but also occurs in the northernmost contiguous states of the U.S. This species preys upon the snowshoe hare primarily. Because of habitat loss and relentless trapping for the fur trade, the Canada lynx was listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 2000. Despite never having prepared a recovery plan for the lynx, in 2017 the Trump administration’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it would begin actions to remove the lynx from listing. This decision is currently being challenged by conservation groups and biologists.
The fourth lynx is our bobcat—the smallest of the genera, and the one that continues to survive, despite all odds, in the rest of North America.
Lynx rufus, the bobcat, with its tail only four to six inches long, is distinctively marked with pointed ears topped by small tufts of hair, additional tufts of hair on the side of the head (sideburns), and a pronounced white circular splotch on the back side of each ear. The markings on their fur are perfectly suited for camouflaging their presence in California’s diverse habitats, with dark stripes and spots on chest, back, and flanks on a matrix that ranges from gray-tan to reddish hues. The short tail is black at the tip but with a white underside. Adult bobcats vary widely in size (12 to 40 pounds), with males averaging 21 pounds and females averaging 15 pounds.
Image left: Comparison of mountain lion, bobcat, and house cat. Drawing by Sarah Guerere, California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Bobcats can be found throughout most of California, in most habitats, although it avoids high elevation areas with deep snow, unlike the Canada lynx with its large snow-adapted paws. They prefer open prairie, shrub and chaparral vegetation types and the early forest stages of succession in low and mid-elevation conifer, oak, riparian, and pinyon-juniper woodlands and forests.
Bobcat appear to benefit from periodic fire, which helps to maintain habitat for many small mammal populations that are prey for bobcat. Rabbits, mice, rats, and squirrels are the most common prey in the bobcat diet; but they are opportunistic predators and will attempt to take insects, fish, amphibians, reptiles, and birds. They are also known to prey on female Pacific fisher, particularly in areas where the fisher has been displaced from its optimal mature, old-growth forest habitat. Bobcat survive well in desert environments where there are sufficient rocks to provide shade, shelter, and denning sites. Bobcat home range is extremely variable and varies by habitat, season and gender. Their home range has been documented from as small as 1.5 square miles to 25 square miles in California.
In the Sierra Nevada bobcats breed from January through June, with breeding peaking from February through May. Denning takes place in small caves, crevices, in hollow logs or under logs, rock piles and rocky ledges, and in dense brush. Litter size ranges from one to six (two to four most commonly). The females raise the kittens alone. Coyotes, mountain lions, fisher, bear, gray wolves, foxes, and owls have been known to prey on bobcat kittens.
Bobcats are crepuscular, meaning they are most active at dusk and dawn, but they can be seen in broad daylight and at nighttime as well depending upon weather conditions.
Bobcats are threatened by illegal hunting and trapping, automobiles, disease, and starvation due to habitat loss. Here in California, there are insufficient data to affirm that the bobcat is on secure survival footing, but they are not currently considered rare by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW). There has never been a state-wide population count, and estimates that the agency has leaned on for half a century were based on surveys conducted not in California, but in Idaho. Bobcats are killed for both recreation/sport, and for the commercial fur trade.
In 2013, California passed the Bobcat Protection Act, which made it unlawful to trap bobcats for their fur for commercial purposes, in areas surrounding state and national parks and other protected areas, or on private property without permission, but hunters could still kill them for sport. The bill was initiated by residents in Joshua Tree, adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park, after observations that the community’s resident bobcats had suddenly disappeared. Commercial fur trappers were found to be trapping bobcats on private property. The bobcats' fur pelts were sold in foreign markets.
New legislation in 2019, AB 1254, now makes it unlawful to hunt, trap, or otherwise kill bobcat in California (with certain exceptions spelled out in the bill, such as livestock depredation). The legislation requires the DFW to conduct the first California-wide bobcat population survey, based on the best available science. The DFW must also develop a bobcat management plan, an assessment of the overall health of the population, a comprehensive strategy to manage bobcat populations and their habitats, an investigation of efficacious nonlethal strategies to prevent bobcat predation on livestock, and recommendations for regulatory or statutory changes needed to implement the plan. The bill requires the Department to deliver the management plan to the California State Wildlife Commission by January 1, 2024. After compiling these data, the DFW will then re-assess the possibility of re-instating bobcat hunting with revised regulations.
In Southern California, threats are unique to the habitat conversion they face there: freeways have created isolated populations, leading to genetic bottlenecks and inbreeding; and exposure to anticoagulant rodenticides and other toxicants has been linked to loss of fitness. Rodenticides are consumed by predators through secondary exposure. This happens when a poisoned rodent is in turn consumed by a predator like bobcats. The toxic compounds have been found to accumulate in the tissues of several predatory species, including mountain lion, California spotted owl, and the endangered Pacific fisher, leading to death or a decline in survival fitness.
Bobcats in Southern California are dying from a particularly vicious type of mange that has infected much of the population. Notoedric mange, or feline scabies, causes animals to lose hair and protein through their skin, making them anemic and leading to emaciation and a slow, painful death.
In one study (Riley et al 2007), 35 of 39 bobcats autopsied tested positive for anticoagulants in their blood, and mange-associated mortality in bobcats showed a strong association with anticoagulant exposure: 19 of 19 (100%) bobcats that died with severe mange were found to have been exposed to the toxicants. Subsequently, Serieys et al (2008) determined a link between reduced immune function and mortality in bobcats exposed to rodenticides and other toxicants and stressors in the urban environment in Southern California.
Use of anticoagulant and neurotoxicant rodenticides has also been identified as a significant cause of fisher mortality. This threat was considered significant by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in the decision to list the Pacific fisher as an endangered species in June, 2020 (Southern Sierra Nevada Distinct Population Segment).
Links and additional reading
Where have all the bobcats gone? KCRW, Santa Monica, 2013.
Riley, S.P.D.; Bromley, C.; Poppenga, R.H.; Whited, L.; Sauvajot, R.M. (2007). Anticoagulant exposure and notoedric mange in bobcats and mountain lions in urban Southern California. Journal of Wildlife Management. 71 (6): 1874–1884.
Serieys, L. et al. 2018. Urbanization and anticoagulant poisons promote immune dysfunction in bobcats. Proc. R. Soc. B.2852017253320172533 http://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2017.2533.
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