By Mark Davis
Powell Tribune 

Saving Pond 6: Agencies combine efforts to improve habitat

 

February 22, 2024

Mark Davis

A Bureau of Land Management fire crew member watches for sparks jumping the boundaries of Pond 6 on Tuesday at Yellowtail Wildlife Management Area near Lovell. More than two dozen BLM crew members and Wyoming Game and Fish Department habitat biologists executed a controlled burn on the 75-acre pond to rid it of cattails.

Via Wyoming News Exchange

POWELL - Wildlife scattered Tuesday as massive flames formed fire devils and thick plumes of smoke rose thousands of feet from Pond 6 at the Yellowtail Wildlife Habitat Management Area. 

As black smoke began to rise around noon, Nick Inzer watched the controlled burn from a safe place on a nearby hill, looking for wildlife escaping the flames through a pair of pricey binoculars.

 "There goes another pheasant," he joyfully announced each time a ringneck was pushed up. 

He was hoping to see some deer as well, but none came. 

But Inzer wasn't there out of interest in upland game birds and deer. He moved to Byron from the East Coast about 14 years ago to be close to great waterfowl hunting after retiring. 

"The waterfowl hunting was phenomenal in this pond when I moved here," he said. "Quite a few guys used to hunt it, you know, 14 or 15 years ago. Now, it's so grown in, there's only a little bit of open water." 

The sight of the raging fire triggered memories of working at the Washington Navy Yard in September of 2001, which was just across the Potomac River from the Pentagon. 

"I was standing up on the tracks of a crane and the operating engineer had a radio in his cab and he said the World Trade Center just got hit by a plane," Inzer said, wondering at the time if it was foggy in Manhattan. "'Now, a second one just hit the World Trade Center,' he told me and I thought, 'whoa, that doesn't sound good.' Then about that time the air raid sirens went off when that plane hit the Pentagon." 

Inzer was glad to get to Wyoming. He had visited often for hunting trips because the East Coast was too crowded and most of the available riparian habitat was privately owned. He's only gone back once for a brief visit since moving to the Cowboy State. 

"This is the best part of Wyoming," he said, staring at the flames on Pond 6. 

The pyre was planned by Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologists and Bureau of Land Management fire engineers, all for the benefit of the habitat. The quick moving fire will eventually breathe life back into the 75-acre pond just north of the Shoshone River which has been increasingly choked by thick cattails over the past 15 years, devouring about 95% of the pond intended as waterfowl habitat. 

More than two dozen BLM firefighters and Game and Fish biologists came to the rescue of the troubled waters, starting and controlling the fast burning fire and ensuring it didn't spread to thick woods and grasslands adjacent to the pond. 

The lack of snow cover and low winds made for ideal conditions, said Eric Shorma, Game and Fish Department habitat and access biologist, completely leveling the cattails in less than three hours. But while the difference in the landscape from start to finish was stunning, cattails aren't easy to kill, and more will need to be done eventually to protect the pond. 

"We'll probably need to come back and revisit this in three or four years," Shorma said.

Yellowtail has perhaps one of the largest cottonwood riparian systems in Wyoming and supports one of the richest concentrations of wildlife species in the state, according to department literature. 

Through a cooperative agreement between the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission, National Park Service, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Bureau of Land Management, this area was established in the early 1960s to enhance waterfowl habitat. 

Six miles east of Lovell, Yellowtail is comprised of 19,214 acres of river bottom, wetlands and sagebrush grasslands. About 925 acres of the property are farmed, under lease contracts, in which grains beneficial for wildlife are planted on more than half of the cropland. 

Pheasants, which flock to the fields, offer one of the most popular species for hunters. 

Yellowtail offers excellent fishing, hunting, camping, hiking and wildlife viewing opportunities. The property is stocked with pheasants each fall, draws in multiple waterfowl species and is excellent deer habitat. 

An occasional moose wanders into the area and more than 160 species of non-game birds inhabit the area. 

The Kane Christmas Bird Count, sponsored by the National Audubon Society, is conducted on the property in December. 

About 300 head of cattle are currently grazing on the property in a partnership between Jackson Bassett, who farms much of the available cropland, and Spencer Ellis of the Flying E Ranch near Cowley. The cattle were pushed away from the controlled burn area prior to ignition, yet they remained curious during the event. 

Ellis, who is the third of four generations in the family to run Flying E and a voting member on the Wyoming Beef Council, joked it wasn't "a good day for a barbecue." 

While the cattle only graze the area for a short time after the close of hunting season, they not only clear the weeds from ditches, but they also make broad paths through dense brush, aiding hunters using the same land, Shorma said. 

He has been managing Yellowtail for the past 14 years and often partners with the BLM for controlled burns. 

While the BLM's primary firefighting focus is on public safety, it also works to improve wildlife habitat, recreational areas and other resources, said Derek Trauntvein, agency natural resource specialist for fuels reduction. 

The BLM partnered with Game and Fish to bring in the necessary qualified people and equipment free of charge. Trauntvein said the exercise was a good start to the year for the crew. 

"A lot of our folks have yet to be committed elsewhere and these are pretty fun burns," he said. "It's a good way to get the dust knocked off for the season." 

As the largest fire program within the Department of the Interior, BLM Fire is directly responsible for fire management on more than 245 million acres. The land is commonly intermixed with other federal, state and local jurisdictions, making partnerships and collaborative efforts crucial to the mission of safety and fire management. 

Trauntvein, who is training to take the lead in fire programs, is also a hunter and enjoys bringing his daughter Briley to Yellowtail for exclusive youth hunting events sponsored by Game and Fish. 

"It's a good experience for [youth] to come and have some planted birds that are going to hold a little better," he said. "Yellowtail brings a ton of recreational value to the community. And if you hunt up here, you'll see that it's not just hunters from Lovell; the whole Basin comes here to enjoy it. It's pretty awesome what they're doing with the management up here." 

Briley didn't come to the controlled burn, but she was there in spirit, having sent enough delicious fancy cheesecake bars for the entire crew to enjoy for lunch.

 
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