Bobcat Fire Burn Scar Update: 664 Days Post-Fire (feat. goats)
(Disclaimer: I am not a bonanist; I'm a pastoralist. So although I'm doing my best to document what's happening in our burn scar, I might get some things wrong. I welcome corrections!)
In the first summer after the fire, I tried taking the goats out to forage. There were some unburned patches of chaparral where they could forage, but it was difficult to keep them there. The burn scar in some areas was just tobacco and mallow, which the goats don't eat. In other areas were resprouting shrubs: scrub oaks and mountain mahogany. The tender leaves of those obligate resprouters were too delicious. The goats preferred them over the old summer favorites, like mature desert almond plants or the new green growth on ephedra. It was difficult to keep the goats from nibbling the fresh growth of the resprouters, but there were a lot of them, and goats tend to nibble and move, nibble and move, so I let them enjoy a little bit. But as fall brought the year anniversary of the fire and those shrubs stopped growing in preparation for winter, I could see that they were going to over browse and maybe kill those shrubs. I locked the goats up and decided that I couldn't let them forage on the land anymore. I had to protect the resprouters so they could survive.
The herd enjoying some green ephedra in the unburned mature chaparral.
The goats spent the next fall, winter and spring in their pen bored and lazy on alfalfa, eating their way through all of the money we could get our hands on. We started downsizing out of financial necessity. Over this period, we went from 60 does to 20 does. The current size of the herd is about the same as when I moved here in 2015. It's a herd we can afford to feed based on our existing Airbnb business on the ranch.
Nigella enjoying some whitestem blazingstar in a small bit of burn scar left by a spot fire in the otherwise unburned chaparral. The plant has long stems that turn white toward the base as the plant matures, small leaves and unremarkable tiny yellow flowers. But it's delicious!
This winter and spring we had a "normal" amount of rain, by which I mean much more than usual recently, almost 12 inches in total. But what was most remarkable about it was the timing. There was never more than about 8 weeks between storms all of the wet season. The landscape was more green than I've ever seen it. I've always tried to discern the impact of the goats foraging on the land, but what I've learned is that the annual precipitation patterns play an outsized role, so the impact of the goats is basically imperceptable.
This is only the 2nd year I've seen these beautiful bladder sage bushes on the ranch. The first time was in the spring of 2016.
This winter's storms brought annuals to the burn scar that I didn't notice the year before, including my new favorite forage plant, whitestem blazingstar (Mentzelia albicaulis).
This plant is pretty unremarkable looking. I saw it first in the meadow where I took the wildflower photos for the previous blog post, but I didn't bother to try to identify it even though it was probably the most prevalent plant there. It wasn't until a couple of weeks later when I took a hike with the local chapter of the the Californa Native Plant Society at The Devil's Punchbowl that I learned about this plant. The Punchbowl also burned in the Bobcat Fire and they had plenty of this spindly small-flowered annual too.
A bouquet of desert mountain spring beauty including whitestem blazingstar.
The big lesson this year was that the burn scar isn't all one thing. The ranch property has 4 ecological zones, determined primarily by changing elevation, starting at 5200 ft and going up to around 6300 ft. The burn scar in each of these zones has very different characteristics and also a different tolerance to browsing pressure.
At the lowest point is the now-dry sag pond (Caldwell Lake), surrounded by a riparian plant community of cattails, tule, willow and cottonwood. Outside of the depression of the lake is mature chaparral, mostly dominated by sagebrush, rabbit brush, ephedra, buckwheat, desert almond and a little bit of four-winged saltbush. None of these plants are resprouters with the exception of the desert almond, which only appears in localized patches. At a slightly higher elevation, we have a strip dominated by Tucker oaks, mountain mahogany, and in canyons with south facing slopes, big berry manzanita, the first two of which are resprouters. And finally the piñon forest, where in the burn scar almost nothing grows under the snags except some miner's lettuce in the early spring.
Goats foraging in a large patch of burned chaparral. You can see there are no resprouting shrubs in this area, only annuals. Also on this west side of the ranch, there is no oak zone. Immediately above the chaparral is the burned piñon forest. In this area it is easy to shepherd the goats and keep them away from resprouters.
Thankfully, our riparian zone didn't burn. Chaparral fire burns intensely, leaving only occasional black fingers reaching up from the soil where a 3 foot tall sagebrush once unfurled its knarls. Scars left by chaparral fire are full of annuals this year and have very little if any resprouting shrubs that the goats can damage. The resprouting oak zone is the most delicate in my opinion, and I'm keeping the goats out of this area entirely. Above that the goats are welcome to wander the snag forest, but they don't find much there of interest.
The oak zone only appears on the east side of the property, near the houses and far from the barn. Although the goats used to forage there regularly, for some reason this summer it's easy to keep them away. Around the barn is only the riparian zone, where if I'm lucky they will eat some tule, the chaparral (burned and unburned, both good for browsing) and the piñon forest, where there is nothing left for them to damage.
I don't know why I have to learn this lesson over and over, that whenever I think something is absolutely true in a black and white kind of way, like "the goats can no longer forage on this land," it's always wrong. There's always more to it, more to learn, a more nuanced understanding waiting to prove me wrong. I'm so glad this turned out to be the case. Both myself and the goats are thrilled to be back out on the land.
Whitestem blazingstar feast.