Idaho Fish and Game officials recently got a first-hand look at the aftermath of the Soda Fire in Owyhee County, and most of the best wildlife habitat remains in Unit 40 in Southwest Idaho.
The Bureau of Land Management reported the Soda Fire burned "rapidly and intensely" over 285,000 acres - more than 400 square miles - of federal state, and private lands in Southwest Idaho and Eastern Oregon.
Fish and Game's Southwest Region Wildlife Biologist Michelle Kemner flew over Unit 40 on Aug. 25 and said the burned acreage in Unit 40 was probably less than 17 percent because some of it burned in patches, particularly Cow Creek where the fire originated. Unit 40 encompasses most of the Idaho/Oregon border country south of the Snake River.
While most of the unit was untouched, other areas were severely burned, including Reynolds Creek Canyon. Kemner recommends hunters avoid that area, as well as Wilson Creek, Wilson Peak, Getaway Mountain, Squaw Butte and Jump Creek, and much of the northwest corner of Unit 40 between U.S. 95 and the Oregon Border.
Some of the best hunting areas in the unit were untouched by fire, including South Mountain, Silver City, Bachman Grade, Triangle and other areas to the south and east of the fire, she said.
Fish and Game had some requests to close Unit 40 to hunting. Kemner understands peoples' concerns, especially when they see thousands of acres of blackened landscape.
"I empathize with people who want to close it," she said. "But there's no reason to close the unit when there's still so much habitat left to hunt."
Rancher Tony Richards, who owns land in Reynolds Creek, encouraged hunters to give the burned areas a rest. He said many ranchers and other large landowners are posting their property this year, including some who allowed public access in the past. Richards said landowners are posting their land so it can recover.
"The hunting just isn't there," Richards said. "It's all burned. It's unbelievable."
Another reason to avoid the area is because many fences and signs burned, and hunters traveling through burned areas may find old road beds and other routes without signs and have no way of knowing if they're on public or private property, or on routes open to motorized travel.
Kemner reported the best sage-grouse habitat in Unit 40 was largely spared, but there was still sage grouse-habitat lost. She counted 10 active leks that burned, which are breeding areas used by sage-grouse in the spring. She noted seven of those leks have traditionally been used by fewer than 10 birds. She is optimistic the best sage-grouse habitat remains, the overall sage-grouse population in the unit won't be affected in the long term, and much of the burned habitat will eventually recover.
She and Fish and Game's Senior Conservation Officer Craig Mickelson were also encouraged to find three radio-collared bighorn sheep survived the fire.
Two bighorn ewes were at Hemingway Butte outside the burn perimeter, and the other was in Reynolds Creek Canyon, which is traditional lambing and late summer habitat.
The Bureau of Land Management reported that overall, the Soda Fire " greatly impacted" 50,000 acres of sagebrush-steppe landscape in Idaho and Oregon that BLM designated as "priority habitat management area" for sage-grouse.
An interagency team recently completed field assessment of the Soda Fire and is designing projects to stabilize watersheds and rehabilitate rangelands and wildlife habitat, BLM officials said.