Sharps Fire Comes to the Pioneers

Zac enjoying a cool, early-season day in the Fish Creek drainage

This summer, the Sharps fire burned almost 65,000 acres in the Pioneer Mountains. Not much is known about how this will affect the future of the landscape, but one thing is for sure, the Pioneer Mountain Range looks different. Working in the range for the past three months, it has become my second home; I understand both its beauty and its challenges.

My experience with the Pioneer foothills started from behind a desk as a simple mapping project. As part of my degree at Boise State, I was an intern with The Nature Conservancy for about six months when I was asked to generate a map of data points in the Pioneer foothills. My supervisor, Bob Unnasch, told me that these points would be used for an ecological survey in the Pioneer Mountain Range. I was fresh out of college and unemployed, so I jumped at the opportunity for experience in the field. I loaded my backpack, grabbed my best sun hat and was off to Hailey.

Though I was excited, the first few days in the range were a sobering event. The scale of the Pioneers is hard to grasp from a 17-inch computer monitor in downtown Boise. The landscape is vast, with high peaks and deep valleys; and survey points that seemed accessible on the map made for hard climbs. My next challenge was learning to identify the plant species that dominated the landscape. Everything from mountain sage to cheatgrass seedlings had to be recorded correctly and consistently. Tanner Marshall, my teammate arrived with plant identification experience, and he was a great teacher. Our pace was slow to start. Memorizing the local plant life and trekking over hard terrain took more time than anticipated. As summer progressed and my experience grew, I began to see more on the mountains than just topography covered in plant life. Where I once just saw single plants dotting the landscape, I was beginning to see communities of vegetation, each filling their own space in the land.

These communities had grown like neighborhoods in a city, each distinct in their own way but a part of a greater city that was the Pioneer Mountains. In this city you could see how management practices had kept some areas healthy, and overuse had left some worse for wear. But the Sharps fire took them all. The fire began with an exploding target set off by a sportsman east of Bellevue. One pull of the trigger showed how much impact one person can have on an entire landscape. It will take much more work to return the Pioneers to what they were, but if proper attention is paid, it can be done.

In the past few days I have returned to the areas the fire passed through. With the vegetation seemingly destroyed and the wildlife dispersed, it is hard to recognize the places I knew at a glance. If you are patient you can see pronghorn on the hilltops and new buds of green springing up from the ground. Life still exists in this new land. The Pioneer foothills are changed, but in time, and with proper management, they’ll return to something that can be recognized as a new take on a neighborhood I once knew well.

-Zac Traylor

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About Us

The Pioneers Alliance is a cooperative effort by ranchers, local residents, conservationists and public lands managers to conserve and enhance the natural and cultural values of the Pioneer Mountains and Craters of the Moon landscape of south-central Idaho.