OAKLEY, Idaho — In a charred landscaped of juniper skeletons, a few yellow bells offer evidence of new life.
But these slopes of the Big Cottonwood Wildlife Management Area, on the rolling edges of the South Hills, were burned in a fire so hot that sagebrush and bitterbrush won’t come back without help.
In 2012, the Cave Canyon Fire spread into other lightning strikes, burning more than 88,000 acres as the Minidoka Complex Fire, said Mark Fleming, regional wildlife habitat manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
In a portion of the Big Cottonwood WMA that’s a wintering area for mule deer and elk, Fleming gave a planting lesson to 86 volunteers and about a dozen employees who showed up earlier this month to help Fish and Game put 6,000 sagebrush and bitterbrush seedlings into the blackened ground northwest of Oakley.
Concentrate on north- or east-facing slopes where the seedlings won’t have to face 100-degree sunlight that sucks moisture from the ground, Fleming told the crowd. Look for spots where water will collect. Bury the roots entirely. Close all the air out of the hole. Take three big steps before choosing another spot.
“These plants will have the best chance of survival if you plant them in the gullies,” Fleming said.
Do a good job, he urged the volunteers. “It’s not a race.”
Carrying red planting bars or bags of seedlings, volunteers young and old hiked through desolate, dead juniper — some of the invasive trees still standing and some knocked over to help stabilize the soil and open up the landscape for native brush.
Among the volunteers were families, members of the local Audubon chapter, a Boy Scout troop and Civil Air Patrol cadets and leaders.
Wielding a planting bar, Jeff Ruprecht of Twin Falls was among the more careful volunteers — looking for spots where fallen juniper could be “nurse plants” to provide shade and capture moisture for the seedlings.
“I’m constantly trying to figure out where the sun would be at the hottest time of the day, and where the shade would be,” Ruprecht said.
He also took to heart Fleming’s instructions to avoid “J-root” — catching the seedling’s root tip on the side of the hole. To prevent that, Fleming said, it’s fine to break a little off the end of the root.
“Jeff’s biting off the roots with his teeth,” said Judy Ruprecht, who bent down to position a seedling in each hole her husband dug.
In a different gully, 15-year-old digger Jacob Caldwell of Kimberly jumped again and again on the shovel blade of his planting bar. His feet would hurt tomorrow, his Boy Scout leader predicted.
The planting team of Paige Blumenthal and Tucker Petterson worked with good cheer while the Twin Falls couple’s 8-year-old son played among the dead juniper, caught caterpillars in his netted safari basket and promised to let them go free.
Petterson, on shovel duty, developed “a pretty good bunny hop,” Blumenthal reported.
“Only for her entertainment, though,” Petterson said. “I don’t know if I could do it for the camera.”
Here, encroaching juniper carried the 2012 fire, allowing it to spread quickly and burn hot — hot enough to erase vegetation and kill seeds in the ground, said Dennis Newman, a regional habitat biologist for Fish and Game.
Besides feeding elk and deer in winter, the newly planted bitterbrush and sagebrush that survive here will help control erosion, capture snow and runoff for the rest of the ecosystem, and shelter birds and small game.
“I’m about the birds,” said planting volunteer Jan Lemcke, of Hagerman.
She’s 81. “But the lady I’m bringing next Saturday is 93,” Lemcke said. “My friend is a nifty lady who’s still running cattle.”
Saturday’s turnout was above average, said David Harper, the senior wildlife technician who coordinates volunteers for Fish and Game’s spring plantings. Many of the new volunteers told him they’d learned about the need from the Times-News, he said.
Last year, Fish and Game and its volunteers planted seedlings in a nearby canyon, Fleming said. Survival rates at two monitoring sites there were 30 percent and 33 percent.
Spring rains — or their absence — and summer temperatures will affect seedlings’ survival.
“If they can make it through the first year, then they’ll be good to go,” Fleming said.
Light rain began to fall as the volunteers emptied their last seedling bags and hiked down toward Harper’s cookies, chips and bottled water.
“If that plant survives, it could live to be 80, 100 years old,” Newman said, pointing to the last seedling he put in the ground.
In five or six years, it will start producing seed.