Aftermath: Fontenelle Fire yields joint recovery plan
Last summer’s 64,220-acre Fontenelle Fire on the western edge of the Wyoming Range burned public and private lands, leaving ranchers with grazing permits on affected allotments wondering how to feed their cattle this summer.
Burned landscapes are privately owned or managed by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) primarily, as well as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Wyoming Game and Fish (WGFD), which lost a winter elk feedground and structures.
Now, these agencies and conservation groups plan to rebuild fences, revegetate slopes, restore burned-over landscapes and monitor rehabilitation.
The immediate goal, though, was to help displaced grazing permittees find pasture to carry them through the coming summer and keep them in business.
The massive relocation and rehabilitation project carries a hefty price tag, according to Eric Peterson, director of the Sublette County Conservation District (SCCD).
“When you get it all mashed together, the total is going to be about $900,000,” he said.
As a county agency, SCCD can apply for grants and is the recovery effort’s “banker,” according to Peterson, with money from the Sublette County Commissioners, Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust, Wyoming Game and Fish Department Trust and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and more grant applications in the works.
“This group came together real easily and real naturally,” Peterson said. “We’ve all worked with one another in many capacities. There might be similar efforts out there, but I think this is certainly a very good example of an interagency public-private combination.”
Bridger-Teton National Forest (BTNF) range specialist for the Big Piney District Chad Hayward, his wife Jennifer A. Hayward of the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and Peterson started work “before the ashes were cold” to help grazing permittees.
Five USFS allotments and the BLM’s North LaBarge allotment will rest this summer and possibly next, which could have left thousands of cow/calf pairs homeless come July. Hayward said they asked permittees what “bare bones they needed to stay in business” to avoid selling off all of their livestock.
Last week, the group completed transactions providing summer pasture for 1,200 cow/calf pairs after USFS permittees offered “non-use” allotments, the WGFD donated a wildlife habitat management area and private pasture was leased.
“After the fire, it became clear there would be some massive post-fire recovery strategies – restoring burned areas, burned fences, stands of timber that are not there any more,” Peterson said. “It became clear this group could come together and help folks … by putting together a crash pad so the landing wouldn’t be so hard for the folks who are going to be displaced from grazing allotments.”
Big Piney ranchers Wayne Barlow of Milleg Partnership and John J. Chrisman of the Rocking Chair Cattle Company appreciate the efforts. Both usually turn out on the BLM’s North LaBarge allotment; both will use alternate pastures for two to three summers.
“If they hadn’t done this, we would probably have liquidated a lot of our cows,” Chrisman said, adding he and his sister Pam sold 200 cows they couldn’t find pasture for.
Barlow said trucking his pairs that spent entire summers on the BLM to more distant pastures will be a “huge change,” but he is grateful.
“I don’t know what we would have done if they hadn’t made this available to us,” he said. “I know Chad Hayward has gone way above and beyond what his job requirements are.”
With Sublette County’s high-elevation summer grass already at a premium and fears of another hot, dry summer, Hayward said locating suitable pasture was like “finding hen’s teeth.”
“You can imagine all the nuances that go into getting the right piece,” Peterson added.
Permittees moving to BLM and USFS pastures will be billed the same fees as on their own allotments, $1.35 per month per animal/unit, such as a cow and a calf. WGFD and private-pasture users will pay fees to the SCCD.
Hayward anticipates the allotments closing for “a maximum of two years, depending on the degree of drought this summer and the vegetation’s response to that.”
“Priority number one was for the permittees to have a place to go with maybe not all the cattle they’ve got … but so they have room for enough livestock to hold together their operations, so they wouldn’t have to sell bunches of cattle,” Peterson said.
With that in hand, Peterson said, “We are looking at treating this fire as a gargantuan habitat-management project.”
Rehabilitation grants and agency funding allow a “proper response for more than cows” with seeding, weed control and habitat restoration yet to occur and “a fair amount of infrastructure and many, many miles of fences” to replace, Peterson said.
Ten and a half miles, according to Hayward.
“We all see the goal, and we all see the challenges we have to overcome to achieve that goal,” Peterson said of the process, which he considers “unique” due to the massive territory and multiple agencies involved. “It’s easy to join up when you can make a positive difference, help out some folks who are going to be in trouble and at the same time make sure the restoration is done right.”
Fontenelle Fire Overview
The Fontenelle Fire started on June 24, 2012 at approximately 4 p.m.
It was located 18 miles west of Big Piney and 33 miles northwest of LaBarge on the west flank of the Wyoming Range, mainly in Sublette County and into Lincoln County.
The fire was managed under a full suppression strategy and was finally declared 100 percent contained on Oct. 18, 2012 after burning 64,220 acres, or about 100 square miles.
The fire caused a range of effects, from mosaic patterns with barely burned areas to high-intensity flames destroying everything organic.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation, according to InciWeb.org.