Bringing back the natural landscape following fire

Reseeding work on Ellemeham Unit of Scotch Creek Wildlife Area

In July 2023, the Eagle Bluff wildfire tore across the landscape, scorching the Ellemeham Unit of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (WDFW) Scotch Creek Wildlife Area in Okanogan County, burning 16,428 acres of wildlife area, neighboring Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property and nearby private properties. The flames devoured habitat for white-tailed deer, mule deer, bighorn sheep, California quail, hawks, woodpeckers and other cavity-nesting birds, and many species of songbirds.

Rough-legged Hawk, Credit: Justin Haug

This habitat loss will also impact mule deer in the area. The Ellemeham Unit is known for providing excellent winter range for mule deer that migrate from higher elevations to the west and the Pasayten Wilderness Area to winter on the unit.

With winter here and spring right around the corner, it’s now a race against the clock to repair this habitat for future wildlife use. Today, WDFW and BLM are working together to mend the landscape and restore habitat. The two agencies have teamed through the use Good Neighbor Authority (GNA) program, to get more done cooperatively than either of the agencies could accomplish on their own.

GNA is a tool stemming from the 2014 Farm Bill. It allows WDFW and other land managers to hire and collaborate with local companies and interests to perform restoration work on public lands, leveraging resources between multiple partner agencies.

It wasn’t as easy as planting a flat field though. Due to Ellemeham’s isolated location and areas of steep terrain, land managers had to get creative to figure out how to access all the areas they needed to plant, and quickly, before invasive weeds take over. The answer? Dropping 6,000 pounds of native grass seeds from a helicopter across 600 acres.

Aerial reseeding is being used more and more often on public lands because it is much quicker and more effective than using the extensive resources that would be required to replant by hand. In this case, seeds from native plants including bluebunch wheatgrass, Idaho fescue, Sandberg’s bluegrass, and sand dropseed were dropped, much of it in areas not accessible from the ground.

Preparing loading of native grass seed

While it sounds like dropping seeds from the air is a simple task, there is a huge amount of preparation and consideration that goes into it. The helicopter required for this work must be able to be handled in tight spaces, so a small helicopter is used. This means the weight it can handle is severely limited and the pilot is extremely careful about everything that goes in it. Every item that goes into the helicopter is measured to the ounce in advance. Even fuel was measured out exactly so as not to go over the weight limit.

So, why are we seeding in November when it’s too cold for new plants to grow? From years of hearing the saying “April showers bring May flowers” we have been conditioned to believe that the best time to plant or grow things is in the spring and summer. But reseeding following wildfires usually takes place in late fall, which is known as dormant seeding. Wildfires often take place in summer when the weather is at its hottest and vegetation at its driest to fuel a fire. It is important to plant native plants as soon as possible after that to keep invasive weeds from taking over. Late fall also has the advantage of having a high enough water content in the soil to nurture seeds but a low soil temperatures to prevent them from germinating. This allows for good seed-to-soil contact to be developed. As soon as the soil warms up enough and conditions are optimal in the spring, the seeds will germinate and start to pop up. Staff will follow up with weed control efforts at that time to give the new starts a good chance at survival. Which also improves the chance of survival of the many wildlife species that depend on these native plants for both food and habitat.

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The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.