Notes from the Field: Landscape Recovery Post Roosevelt Fire

On September 15, 2018, a fire was reported by a pair of hunters in the Hoback River drainage near Bondurant, Wyoming. This small blaze began under hot, windy conditions and expanded with frightening speed. By the time what became known as the Roosevelt Fire had run its course, it had burned over 61,000 acres, tearing through the community of Hoback Ranches and destroying more than 55 homes. The devastation and displacement of people was heartbreaking, and the diverse landscape of Hoback Ranches—old-growth conifer forest, open aspen stands, sagebrush steppe hillsides, and rich riparian willow communities—was left barren and charred. In the fall of 2018, as the determined community came together to recover and prepare for winter, many were wondering what this treasured landscape would look like come spring.

Hoback Ranches view shortly after the fire in 2018.

Much of Northwest Wyoming’s landscape is described by scientists as “resilient”. This means that the habitat has the ability to bounce back to its former condition following a disturbance like fire. High resiliency is generally a product of the cool temperatures and adequate annual precipitation that create ideal conditions for plant reestablishment. The area burned in the Roosevelt Fire, particularly in Hoback Ranches, has been an incredible example of landscape resiliency. In our visits to the Jackson Hole Land Trust’s protected properties in Hoback Ranches last summer, we were met with an abundance of new, green growth. Many native plant species thrive when exposed to sporadic wildfire, and it was impressive to see their establishment after less than a year.

Aspens thrive in “early-succession” environments, so they are some of the first trees to spring up after a disturbance event. Before larger trees with spreading canopies fill in, an aspen grove will send up a multitude of small shoots that all compete for the ample sunlight available after fire moves through an area. In several places we walked, we noted that aspen shoots were already up to 3 feet high. These stands will soon become thick with new, young aspen and gradually thin themselves over time as larger trees shade out the smaller ones. Likewise, disturbance encourages the growth of willows, which can re-sprout from stumps remaining after fire. These willows will help stabilize the soil in stream drainages as other water-loving plants take root.

In areas formerly dominated by sagebrush, we were greeted by an explosion of grasses and wildflowers. Lupine, an iconic purple flower with silvery, palm-shaped leaves, blanketed several hillsides in such abundance that the hills looked purple from afar. Although sagebrush generally does not re-sprout after being burned, its seeds persist in the seed bank underground. In the spring, young sagebrush plants will appear between the scattered bunchgrasses, and the land will start to return to its former character.

We were also delighted to see plentiful signs of wildlife as we walked protected properties this summer. We documented numerous ungulate tracks left behind by elk, mule deer and moose. The green shoots of new plants are particularly nutritious for these species, and will have provided crucial forage this fall. The fire also left many burned tree snags, which are ideal habitat for cavity-nesting birds such as woodpeckers. We hope to see many of these small, charismatic birds on future visits.

Hoback Ranches has changed dramatically since the Roosevelt Fire. The tenacious residents of the community have made incredible strides in rebuilding their homes just as the flora and fauna of the area are rebuilding the ecosystem. Although signs of the fire will remain evident for many years, new growth is spreading across the landscape, restoring the scenic vistas and wildlife habitat of the area once again.

-Erica Hansen, Landscape Protection Specialist and Staff Biologist

Hoback Ranches view one year after the fire.

Photos: Jansen Gundersen; Erica Hansen; Erica Hansen.