Yellowtail fire affects wildlife habitat

A recent wildfire on the Yellowtail Wildlife Habitat Management Area northeast of Lovell that burned approximately four miles of cottonwood riparian habitat and wetlands along the Shoshone River will affect wildlife habitat and future hunting opportunities.

Cody Region Terrestrial Habitat Biologist Jerry Altermatt said that the loss of critical spring nesting cover could impact wildlife populations and limit future hunter opportunity for game birds and waterfowl.

“Most ground nesters, including turkeys, pheasants, and waterfowl, will not have adequate nesting cover in the burned areas for this year’s nesting season. Some re-nesting will occur after spring growth has provided enough cover, but clutch sizes will be smaller. We should expect a poor hatch for these birds and a subsequent reduction in bird hunting opportunity this fall in areas affected by the fire,” Altermatt said. “Grass cover will regenerate quickly and most shrubs found on Yellowtail will resprout, but it will take years for them to provide the level of cover they did prior to the fire. We will not see natural replacement of this large cottonwood forest however.

“Yellowtail hosts mostly plains cottonwood, which is a weak sprouter after fire. These cottonwoods will generally leaf out or even sprout from the base the first year after fire and then die. Early summer flooding necessary for cottonwood establishment from seed occurs infrequently and at a much reduced level on Yellowtail due to the altered hydrology of the Shoshone River due to Buffalo Bill Dam.”

The 1,500 acre fire burned Game and Fish, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and Bureau of Reclamation owned lands within the habitat management unit. Although no buildings on Yellowtail were lost in the fire, gated pipe, transport pipe and structures that control the water levels on ponds 1-4 were burned, causing an estimated $31,000 in damage. Approximately one mile of fence on the unit will need to be replaced.

The burned cottonwood areas will present a hazard for years as dead cottonwoods begin to fall. The public is advised to use caution in areas with burned snags, especially in windy conditions.

“We can expect an increase in Russian olive and salt cedar seedlings or sprouts in burned areas and for other weed species such as white-top and Russian knapweed to take advantage of the fire,” Altermatt said. “The cost of controlling these weeds on 1,500 acres will be large, but necessary to maintain habitat values.”

The Yellowtail Wildlife Habitat Management Area provides unique habitat to a multitude of wildlife and is home to one of the largest cottonwood forests in the West. The 19,424 acre unit is managed by Game and Fish through a cooperative agreement with the National Park Service, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Bureau of Land Management.