Through his 35 years as a wildlife manager in Utah Jim Karpowitz has seen drought and wildfires. But nothing compares to 2012.
"The thing that has been so unique about the drought is that it has been statewide; not just one area," said Karpowitz, director of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR). "And the wildfires started way earlier than I can remember."
Those drought-enhanced wildfires have burned more than 500,000 acres in the state, and "most of it is inhabited by wildlife of one sort or another," he said.
Despite the mass destruction, Karpowitz said Utah is prepared to deal with the loss thanks to the Watershed Restoration Initiative, a program that sets it apart from other Western states.
The initiative, officially launched in 2005, is a partnership of state and federal agencies designed to coordinate conservation concerns and priorities.
The rash of wildfires in 2012 definitely falls into those categories.
"This is a unique program and because of it we have the people, the facilities and equipment to respond quickly," Karpowitz said. "It is not common for a wildlife agency to do this. Utah is really unique in the regard that we so strongly believe in habitat."
Recognizing early that the burned landscape around the West would need to be revegetated this fall, DWR officials moved quickly to secure $5 million worth of seed and have set up contractors to get it planted this fall just before the snow arrives. Other states in the West have been ravaged by fires but have scrambled to find the resources to handle rehabilitation. And the delay may cost those states as seed is becoming scarce.
The seed is a mix of native and nonnative plants including grasses, forbs and shrubs and are selected for their benefits to wildlife, erosion control and ability to compete with nonnative nuisance vegetation like cheatgrass.
The invasive cheatgrass quickly becomes established after fires. It provides little food value for wildlife and is prone to burn again and again, expanding its range each time.
Karpowitz says the seed mix the state has been using to reseed wildfire areas seems to be fire resistant.
"It has been really interesting to see that the areas where we have done this work are not burning like other areas," he said. "We have not seen large fires in the rehabilitated areas."
Since the Watershed Restoration Initiative started, more than 800,000 acres of Utah lands have undergone restoration work at a cost of $80 million.
Karpowitz said the DWR will go to the Legislature to cover this year's $5 million for seed either through an appropriation or use of restricted wildlife funds, but some lawmakers have already indicated approval won't be a problem.
While Utah appears to be in good shape right now, Karpowitz is crossing his fingers and hoping fire season ends soon.
"The seed is mostly gone now," he said. "It will be really problematic if we burn a lot more."