02 August 2008

Hiking the Burn: Life after the Pattengail Forest Fire near Butte, Montana

Butte, Montana, was a smoky town last summer. The plume from the Pettingill Fire (aka the "official" misspelling Pattengail) seemed drawn to Butte like iron filings to a magnet. Like the Yellowstone Fires of 1988 or the Mussigbrod Fire (upper Big Hole River basin) of 2000, the Pettingill Fire is part of a natural cycle in the mid-elevation lodgepole pine forest of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest in Montana.

Last week, Dave Carter, RTD, and I were able to get out for a hike across the Pettingill Burn in the Doolittle Creek/Squaw Creek area.

It was a classis "mosaic" burn, with many fingers of forest left untouched. Notice the stark contrast where Dave is standing as the ridgeline falls away to the north side (unburned):

Fungi of various kinds are among the first colonizers after a forest fire. Sorry for the technical scientific jargon, but here are some little brown mushrooms:

And some tiny brown mushrooms (these seem to be especially associated with elk droppings--sort of like the Huichol Indians "trail of the deer?"):

We don't normally think of lupine as early post-fire colonizing plants, but they sure are abundant in this burn:

The elk are also using the burn already, and it seems every finger of unburned land has its resident big bull elk. Note RTD standing in this big elk bed (it ran out just ahead of Dave & I--we probably talk too much while hiking) in a green island near a spring seep:

Big track, big elk:

Like the other burns I mentioned, the elk population will probably double in this area over the next several years as plants recolonize the burn, turning the landscape into a lush elk-garden.
The insects and spiders seem to be doing OK, too--like this orb weaver and its beautiful web:

As we drove back toward Butte, we were greeted along the Big Hole River with the sight of a bald eagle out for a little afternoon fishing:


Anonymous said...

not everybody thinks wild fires are so good. how much value did those trees have that burned up? there could be a lot of logging instead of letting trees burn.

EcoRover said...

Well, timber harvest clearly has its place. However, two things need to be made clear:

(1) Logging is in no way a replacement for fire. Fire does things to fertilize the soil and to regenerate new and diverse plant growth that logging simply cannot emulate. While there are good socio-ecomomic reasons for logging, no one should ever think that logging is environmentally beneficial.

(2) Most of the Big Hole River watershed is high elevation, slow growing forest. In many areas, it takes 100 years to grow an 8-inch lodgepole pine. The value of such timber is very low.

troutbirder said...

I don't know if I will ever again have the time or energy to spend a few weeks in Montana during the summer, as I did when my sons were teenagers and college students (one got his Masters at MSU in Bozeman) but following your hikes throug this blog is a good second best and rekindles many fond memories. Thanks

Leedra said...

When I hear anything about Butte, Montana it takes me back to 1990. I traveled from TN on my Harley to Sturgis. New Harley, alternator went bad in a small town (main road was dirt, don't remember the name of the town) close to Butte. Got it started and went straight to Butte's Harley shop. Spend the day there.

Love the spider web photo.


I love seeing your photos and discussions of nature in the Montana area. Glad t have found your blog site!

EcoRover said...

Thanks all, for the comments but more importantly for the blogs you post about your special places and insights into nature. Viewing and reading your posts helps me appreciate a lot of things that I usually overlook.