Saddle Butte Fire

Morning sunlight illuminates the scorched ridges of East Gros Ventre Butte on Tuesday. The Saddle Butte Fire burned shrubby vegetation and grasses on 250 acres of slopes like this one early this week, eliminating a source of food for species like mule deer in the winter to come. Longer-term, biologists believe the fire will help wildlife. 

The south and east faces of East Gros Ventre Butte are prime winter habitat for mule deer and elk, species whose homes will be somewhat compromised in the coming months by the Wildlife Museum and Saddle Butte wildfires.

But taking the longer view, the ungulates stand to benefit from the flames that creeped and ran over the 7,408-foot-high butte that cuts the town of Jackson’s northern skyline.

“Usually if you have a fire come through, you end up with a bunch of new green vegetation that has a pretty high protein content — higher than the older vegetation,” Wyoming Game and Fish Department spokesman Mark Gocke said.

Biologists have dubbed the flora that tends to crop up in the wake of fire “ice cream plants,” he said, because of the resulting growth’s nutritious qualities. It’s one reason that land and wildlife managers such as the Bridger-Teton National Forest and Wyoming Game and Fish routinely prescribe fire for landscapes that have gone without the natural ecological process for decades.

Biologist Franz Camenzind agreed about the longer-term benefits of the fire, but he’s worried about how the lost habitat will affect mule deer this winter. The butte’s resident herd effectively lost a half-square-mile worth of forage, which could cause deer to cross Broadway and Cache Street more often, spending time in places like Karns Meadow instead.

“I suspect that they are coming into the fall in pretty good shape,” Camenzind said, but he guessed that a couple dozen or perhaps as many as 50 mule deer usually winter in the southern reaches of the Saddle Butte burn area, which is an undeveloped mix of Wyoming-owned and private land.

Gocke and Camenzind both pointed out one unwanted plant species that could grow out of the fire scar: cheatgrass.

The nonnative grass, which cures fast and has little nutrition for wildlife, is spreading throughout the American West and Teton County. East Gros Ventre Butte has been a local stronghold for cheatgrass, and its slopes were even subject to the valley’s first-ever aerial herbicidal spraying.

Cheatgrass usually thrives in areas that have burned, using disturbed environments to gain a foothold, Gocke said.

Contact Mike Koshmrl at 732-7067 or env@jhnewsandguide.com.

Mike has reported on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's wildlife, wildlands and the agencies that manage them for 7 years. A native Minnesotan, he arrived in the West to study environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.

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