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Recovering after fires Rangeland recovery after wildfire takes time

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

With several large wildfires in 2018, some ranchers across the state of Wyoming have experienced loss of forage, loss of property or even loss of livestock. The period after a fire, however, brings critical concerns for producers as far as recovery.

“Post fire-recovery for production is very different than post-fire recovery for ecology,” said Matt Reeves, U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station research ecologist.

Reeves, who spends his time working on remoting sensing and modeling to characterize rangeland dynamics and serves as the U.S. Forest Service liaison to USDA’s Climate Hubs, says production recovery is largely variable and unquantifiable. 

“There is a lack of information about post-fire recovery,” Reeves said. “As a critical ‘good,’ one of the things most people think about is grass growing back, and it’s critical for rangelands.” 

In general, the U.S. Forest Service utilizes guidelines for grazing allotments recommending a two-year rest period. 

“This is confusing and frustrating because it’s a carte blanche strategy,” Reeves said. “In some fires, however, post-fire recovery is very good, and rest can be frustrating. We have conflicting viewpoints between managers, agencies, permittees and the general public.” 

Vegetation recovery

Each year after a fire, Reeves said studies have looked at how long it takes a burned area to return to a state that is indistinguishable from areas that have not been burned. Using statistical analysis and modeling, Reeves and a team of researchers looked at recovery time for 111 reference species across 662 million acres in the West. 

“When we ask how long until post-fire period equaled the land that didn’t burn, we average 1.5 years, plus or minus,” he said. “This surprised me.” 

Looking deeper, he noted that mixed grass prairie took about two years to recovery, with about a year, plus or minus, depending on conditions. Intermountain basin big sagebrush shrubland recovered in about 1.78 years, and the big sagebrush steppe was comparable at 1.86 years. 

“These are broad averages,” Reeves said. “The time could be as much as seven years, according to the site, for recovery. However, on average, they’re pretty low, between 1.5 and two years.”

A look over time showed that, after lands are recovered, they tend to stay recovered, though Reeves said there are questions about other complicating factors. 

Producer solutions

For those who have experienced fire impacts, the Farm Service Agency (FSA) wants to hear from livestock producers, landowners and grazing permittees who suffered ag-related losses.

“In general, we’re looking at lost grazing on private property or permitted allotments,” said FSA’s Jennifer Dutton, who visited Pinedale and Big Piney in mid-October to visit with producers affected by the Roosevelt Fire. “Those grazing on federal lands are potentially eligible.”

Fences destroyed in the recent fire are one place where the FSA can assist, she said. Dutton and coworker Sadie St. Clair are contacting ranchers within the Roosevelt Fire burn area and small landowners have contacted them, as well.

FSA may be able to cover fence damages on private lands, and for people who lease land to a livestock producer, FSA might cover fence damages and the producer could be eligible for actual forage loss. She wants to know about any damages, including damaged haystacks, as soon as possible so she can request funding, Dutton said.

“For those who are not ag producers or are not on their own land which is used for agricultural purposes, it is highly unlikely to get fences replaced,” she said. “All of our programs are geared toward agriculture.”

Public lands leases

Most U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management permittees who moved their cattle from allotments can apply for loss of grazing now and for two years into the future – most fire-burned public lands are closed for up to three years.

Expenses related to shipping livestock away from the Roosevelt Fire are not eligible, such as “actual trucking, no.” She hasn’t heard of any direct livestock losses due to the fire but some died during or after moves.

“We’re going to have to look closely at every situation because no two situations are the same,” she said. “I’ve heard from very few people so far, but things are just starting to settle down. It’s been really hectic for many producers.”

“Producers who have been affected by the fire and are ag producers, they should call us,” she advised. “We deal with a lot of people who are unfamiliar with the process. There are so many programs that differ just a little bit.”

Dutton said USDA’s recent designation of Sweetwater County as a drought disaster county makes adjacent Sublette County eligible for FSA emergency assistance for crop losses and other drought damages.

Some Sublette customers are already enrolled in catastrophic and non-insured crop insurance programs that cover drought losses. FSA’s team will provide more information about these programs.

“There are people who don’t want federal help – that’s been true in Sublette County for a long time,” Dutton said. “That’s okay. We’re here if they want us. Sometimes things like this can change their minds.”

Saige Albert and Joy Ufford collaborated to write this article, with Albert covering Reeves’ presentation and Ufford covering FSA information. Send comments on this article to

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