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Episode 1: From Fire Season to Hunting Season

Kids Ask Why
Kids Ask Why
Episode 1: From Fire Season to Hunting Season

Sophia Moore and Taft Winters explore two important “seasons” in Wyoming—Fire Season and Hunting Season. Sophia had firsthand experience with the Lost Creek Fire outside of Cody, and has lots of questions for BLM dispatcher Katie Williamson. Katie helps Sophia understand the pros and cons of fires in the West. Taft Winter just passed his Hunter Safety course and wants to learn more about how the state manages the game herds. He is particularly interested in Mule Deer life history, and asks Sam Stephens, Wildlife Biologist with Wyoming Game and Fish, all about it.

Sophia Moore

Sophia Moore is an 8 year old big sister. She is a second grader from Cody, WY. Her favorite hobbies and activities include soccer, gymnastics, playing outside, math, science, hiking, and softball. She’s grateful to be a part of the Kids Ask WhY podcast. 

Katie Williamson

Katie Williamson is originally from Thermopolis, WY. While attending the University of Wyoming, Katie worked summers as a wildland firefighter for the Wind River/Bighorn Basin District BLM. Following college graduation, Katie accepted a permanent helitack position in the southwest on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. In this location she spent seven years fighting wildfires and assisting with aviation operations. In late 2010, Katie moved back to WY as the Assistant Center Manager at the Cody Interagency Dispatch Center. She became the Center Manager in 2019. Cody Interagency Dispatch Center provides operational coordination and logistical support for wildfires occurring on federal, state and county lands in Northwest WY.   

Taft Winters

Hi! I’m Taft Winters and I live on a farm outside of Otto, WY with my family. I am the third son of seven boys! I attend school in Burlington and will enter the 7th grade in the fall. I enjoy participating in track, football, and basketball during the school year and working on our family’s farm during the summer.  I turned 12 years old this January and was able to apply for a hunting license. I was excited to be a part of the Kids Ask Why Podcast so that I could learn more about deer hunting and other interesting topics throughout the state of Wyoming.

Sam Stephens

After college I began my career as a seasonal for the Bureau of Land Management and Clearwater National Forest conducting clearance surveys and sensitive species monitoring on proposed logging and oil and gas development sites.  I then worked for the University of Wyoming as a sage grouse research technician in Jeffrey City and the Bighorn Basin.  I started working for Wyoming Game and Fish in 2014 as a seasonal wildlife technician.  In 2015 I began working as a Large Carnivore Biologist position for the Department, where I focused on the human/wildlife interface in Teton and Fremont Counties.  Specifically conflicts with grizzly bear, black bear, mountain lion, and wolves.  Since 2017 I have been a Senior Wildlife Biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish, spending my first two years in Baggs Wyoming and since 2019 I have been stationed in Greybull.  Since transitioning into the Greybull position my focus has been on elk population management, chronic wasting disease in deer, seasonal habitat selection of native ungulates, and the population vitality of mule deer, bighorn sheep, and pronghorn populations within the Bighorn Mountains.

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Why are fires important to the forest?

Why is hunting important to the communities around Wyoming?

Welcome to the Kids Ask Why podcast where the kids ask the questions. A production of Wyoming Public Media and Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

SOPHIA: Hi, my name is Sophia Moore. I live in Cody Wyoming and I am eight years old. I’m interested in this, because last summer, we were going out to my cousin’s cabin, and we couldn’t go because there was a fire- Lost Creek Fire. They shut down the road. So we had to turn back like 15 minutes out of town. So we had to go up the next time I came. It was just really cool to see the fire up close. 

Katie Williamson and Sophia Moore

Today I am talking to Katie Williamson, who is the fire dispatcher for the Bureau of Land Management. Did you have to role in the Lost Creek fire?

KATIE: I did have a role in that. So last year, I was actually in my dispatch center when that call came in. And so right now my job as the center manager Cody dispatches I support a lot of the firefighters going out there. And so my job is to send all the firefighters to go and help put out the fire. And then when the fire kept getting bigger and bigger, it was my job to find all the different extra firefighting equipment like the extra fire trucks, and the aircraft, and hand crews to send to that fire.

SOPHIA: Why are fires important to the forest?

KATIE: So fires are really important. Not all fires are scary and want to make sure we know that. Some fire is really good for our forests. So when you have a fire go through an area, it can help stimulate more trees. It can help seed start to grow more new, healthy plants. It cleans up a lot. You know when you go into the forest and you see a bunch of needles that have fallen from a tree on the ground? Fires come and help clean up that so then it’s a healthy ground surface again, and new plants can grow. It also helps open up a canopy. When you have a fire come in, it’ll help kind of open up the tree canopy because the fire burned up some of the older dead trees. And so now more sunlight can come into the forest and you can get more rain on the ground to help grow newer trees and healthier plants.

SOPHIA: Katie, how do you decide when to leave a fire burning or when to put it out?

KATIE: It really depends on a lot of different factors. So sometimes it depends on how did the fire start? Was it started by lightning? Or was it started by a human cause, like somebody forgetting to put out their campfire, which is how the Lost Creek fire started. Also, it depends on the location of where the fire started. If it was down near, like people’s homes, you know where people live, we don’t want to usually let those burn. If it’s in the wilderness, where it’s really remote and you know that there’s not going to be a lot of people there, we might let it burn. Also, we take into account the time of the year. So is it going to be getting cooler at night? Like in the fall? You know, the summer’s over with? Is it getting cooler at night where we might start getting some rain or some snow? Or is it in August when it is like 100 degrees out and really, really hot.

SOPHIA: How do animals know when a fire is coming? How do they stay safe?

KATIE: Well, they’re kind of a lot like humans so they can smell the smoke. They can see the fire maybe they can even hear the trees. A lot of animals don’t want to be near the fire. They want to get away from it. What do you think a bird would do if they saw or smelt fire?

SOPHIA: They probably fly near the mountains where it’s snowy?

KATIE: Well, they’re gonna fly away from the fire. They’re not gonna stay in the smoke. And same with our big animals like our elk and our deer. They want to leave and get out of there as soon as possible. And buffalo too. They usually will try to leave the area as soon as possible and some animals will burrow like they’ll dig into the ground and burrow. I’ve seen pictures where we’ve had elk stand in lakes to get away from the fire.

SOPHIA: Katie, what is this long tall tool you use to fight fires?

Palaski tool

KATIE: Well, Sophia, this one that I have shown for you right now this is called a palaski. And we use this on a fire a lot to help. You see how it kind of has an axe blade here on one side. And then on the other side, it has another like a pick.  And so we use this side, the axe side to cut up like tree roots and things like that that are in our way. And then we use the pick side to help dig line on the fire because we want to get down all the way to the dirt when we’re fighting fire.

SOPHIA: And how about this hard helmet thing?

KATIE: This is called a hard hat? What do you think we would use this for?

SOPHIA: To put on your head?

KATIE: Why would you think we would want something like this?

SOPHIA: In case little sparks to the fire landed somewhere near you?

KATIE: Yeah, well, that’s one. You know, another one is to protect our heads. Because sometimes when you’re fighting fire, you might be on a really steep hillside, and what we call rolling rocks, rolling debris, maybe even other tree branches, they fall. And if you don’t have a hardhat on, what’s going to hit?

SOPHIA: Your head!

KATIE: Yeah, so we wear a hardhat. So feel how hard that is. Pretty solid, huh? And so firefighters always wear these out there to keep our heads safe and protected. What do you think this is?

SOPHIA: A backpack so you can carry food and water and other safety things.

Line gear

KATIE: You are so correct. We call this line gear but you are right. It looks just like a backpack. And we’ve got water in here. What do you think this is? We call it a silk saw. And so we use these when we’re on a fire. When we don’t have a chainsaw handy. Maybe we’ll have to cut a little branch off or something of a tree. And we’ll use those to cut it off.

SOPHIA: My favorite part was seeing all the cool tools like the pickaxe and carrying the heavy bag. I was surprised when I was doing research, when it says some forest fires aren’t dangerous. So fires give a lot. They burn down trees that are taking up all the sunlight. And so the newer trees can grow and the older trees go away so they’re not sticks in the ground. And animals– elk go to rivers, buffaloes, deer stay near rivers, lakes, and other water sources. A lot of big animals go near water sources. Rabbits, moles and groundhogs and other digging animals go underground. And birds normally fly away to where it’s safer. If fires don’t get put out, it could spread to towns, roads, animals, homes, ranches, and other places that could endanger people. I would be interested in it because it’s a career that helps people and animals. I would like to jump out of planes because it’s dangerous.

TAFT: Hi I’m Taft Winters and I am 12 years old and I live in Otto, Wyoming. I am interested in this topic because I am now able to hunt and I’ve gone through Hunter Safety so I wanted to learn more about what I needed to do and things about deer. Today I’m interviewing Sam Stephens, who is a wildlife biologist for Wyoming Game and Fish.

Why is hunting important to communities around Wyoming?

SAM: I think that there’s the direct benefit of harvesting game meat for the hunters and for the hunter’s family. I think like I just said, there’s a lot of people who harvesting an elk or a deer or a pronghorn is really important so that they can fill the freezer and feed themselves or their family. You know, throughout the year, it’s a very culturally important pastime, not only to Wyomingites, but to most people in the West and most people in America in general. But, you know, those are kind of the direct benefits as to why I think it’s important. Indirectly to our communities, it’s extremely important because it draws hunters from around the state, and even outside of the state, to some of these smaller communities that would otherwise not see as much business except in the summertime when we get a lot of tourists coming through. And so if you notice, you know, in the months of October and November, we have a lot of our local hotels and restaurants and sporting goods shops and hardware stores are full of hunters that are, you know, either from out of town or like I said, out of state. And so the more hunters we have out there, whether they’re hunting mule deer, elk or pronghorn, those are people who are not only culturally but also financially invested in the resource. They’re spending time, they’re spending their money to go out and spend time in pursuit of some of these wild animals.

TAFT: I was wondering how many deer are shot in Wyoming and how that affects how many hunters there are?

Mule Deer

SAM: If you looked at harvest over the last decade, we’ve fluctuated between about 39,000 and 45,000 deer total, and it’s split fairly evenly. If you look at the data for the last 10 years, about 60% of those are mule deer, so about 21,000 I think it was last year. And 20,000 were whitetail. But again, that’s statewide. And that’s also everything that’s not just bucks, that’s, bucks, does, and fawns of both species. Your second question, how does that translate into how we set seasons. That’s a really important metric for us. If we come out of a hunting season, and we find that we killed a lot of deer, the hunters killed a lot of deer in some area, that’s probably an indication to us that we have a lot of deer. So at the very least, we will probably at least either maintain the seasons as they were, or we may offer additional opportunity. Whereas if it was lower, where you live on the Greybull River is a good example, in hunt area 124, we’ve seen a steady decrease in the harvest there, which triggers us as managers to come back and kind of reassess and try to understand– okay, well, why are we killing fewer and fewer deer in this herd than we were 10 years ago. And from our perspective, it’s because the population is lower, we just have fewer deer, which means there’s fewer deer being harvested.

TAFT: Then how many deer are killed in Wyoming from things other than hunting, and what are a few of them?

Deer Grazing by Charles M. Russell

SAM: There’s a number of different variables that directly can kill deer like disease, and predators. But in general, the largest variable that influences deer populations by driving them down is weather. And it’s usually two things that work in tandem, it’s dry, hot summers. And it’s cold, wet winters. And if you get those two things in tandem, it can amount to a pretty significant loss of deer, especially in the late winter or early spring months. Because if you think about a mule deer’s life history strategy, what they’re trying to do every summer and fall is to go fatten up all summer long, all the way into the fall. They’re going to pack on as much weight as they possibly can, because they know that they’re going to have to survive on very little food, and waiting around in the snow and living in colder temperatures for the following six months. And so what we see normally is within the adult population, it’s 10 to 20% of those adults. 

TAFT: How many hunters are there? 

SAM: I’m fairly confident it’s somewhere around 200,000. But if you just take the three main big game species, deer, pronghorn, and elk, last year we were sitting right around 160,000 active hunters that were out there. 

TAFT: What’s the main thing hunted? And what is it used for?

SAM: There’s more deer hunters than there are both elk hunters and pronghorn hunters.

TAFT: What would you use the deer for? Most of the time? What is it most commonly used for?

SAM: Yeah, we got a lot of people that that survive off of both elk, pronghorn, and deer meat. So it’s a pretty valuable resource to most Wyomingites. 

TAFT: What is Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) and how does it affect deer populations? 

SAM: It’s a disease that is transmitted through a mal-shapen protein that basically corrodes the central nervous system of the animal that’s infected and it’s highly transmissible. It’s really contagious. 

TAFT: What do you use to cure CWD? 

SAM: We don’t have a cure yet. Yeah, that’s one of the problems with it, is we still have nothing that we can sterilize the landscape with. It’s a major issue. It’s it is probably the number one issue with regards to wildlife populations. Not only in Wyoming, but probably, throughout North America, and in some cases globally. 

TAFT: Sounds like COVID for deer. 

SAM: Yeah, yeah, kinda is. Yep, maybe a little worse.

TAFT: It was pretty interesting. Mostly because I didn’t know very much about what he said. And he used words that were easy for me to understand. And if I didn’t, then he explained them. That was nice. And he seemed pretty good at his job, because he knew how to explain it. And he could answer all my questions pretty well. So I thought it was pretty good. I learned a lot about what deer do for us and what happens to them. One thing that surprised me was how much the deer population is affected by so many sicknesses and diseases. I think Sam’s job is important because he’s the one who helps set the licenses and figures out deer population and all of that complicated stuff. I don’t think I’d ever be able to do that. So I think that’s pretty important that he’s smart enough to do that. I don’t think I would do that career. Because I already have a lot of careers that I might do. So I don’t know, I’ve never been great at like outdoors and stuff. But I just want to learn a little bit more about that.

BOTH: And that’s why we ask why!