As you drive through the park on the east side, you'll enter the Reynolds Creek fire from 2015. This fire started near Reynolds Creek southeast of Jackson Glacier Overlook and quickly “blew up,” meaning that it expanded its size greatly due to bad fire weather conditions. This fire shut down the road for a few weeks in 2015 and made it impossible for me to reach my main White-tailed Ptarmigan study site at Logan Pass for a while. Why did the park service let this fire burn so long?
They didn't. You may have heard that the National Parks have a “let it burn” policy. It turns out that this is only remotely true – they only let fires burn if they are really, really remote. They have to be on the west side, far from life and property, and, generally high on a mountain so they can’t possibly go anywhere. The Reynolds Creek fire was seen from the Going-to-the-Sun road and was immediately decreed a “full suppression” fire. Often in this situation a team of Smoke Jumpers is called to parachute in and start suppression activities. In this case, the fire was moving too rapidly, so little could be done until the weather slowed the fire down over the next few days. It is not atypical for fire to be controlled more by weather than by humans - try as we might.
So, we might cry in frustration at the sight of all the dead trees, but the birds don’t. Specifically, Black-backed, Three-toed, Hairy, and other Woodpeckers, Mountain Bluebirds, and Gray Jays will appreciate the insect smorgasbord. You see, living trees have defenses against insects feeding on them. But, when they die, it’s free food for the insects. Then, of course, that’s free food for the birds. Hawk Owls are also known to use recent burns as nesting habitat. So, over the next few years, it will be really interesting to bird the St. Mary Falls trail, most of which was burned.
Top of page photo by Randy Patrick
David Benson Ph.D.
White-tailed Ptarmigan researcher and National Park Service Ranger Naturalist in GNP since 1995. "The Bird Ranger"