Monday, April 10, 2017

Prairie Rebirth

   Much has been reported about the record Starbuck Wildfire that hit the Red Hills of Kansas on March 6. That day and the week that followed was a disastrous period for several wild fires in the states of Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Many people lost their homes, livestock, and some human lives. It's hard to not overstate the devastation this catastrophe brought to the affected areas. Losses are still being evaluated. While it's not hard to count lives, homes, livestock and miles of fences lost, it's more difficult to assess impacts on nature. The prairie does not suffer much from this event. After all, prairies evolved with fire so enjoy overall benefits in the long run. But, there are some immediate casualties. These include direct mortality of large and small animals as well as some desired trees. Losses of cedar trees which have encroached on the riparian zones as well as uplands of some of the area affected are generally not mourned. Windbreaks made up of cedar rows were lost and this is certainly regretted. But, the death of some of the large lowland hardwoods is very unfortunate. The most notable of these losses include the Kansas state (and world for that matter) record Little (Texas) Walnut tree in northern Clark County. This is the third state/world record of this species lost over the last year due to this fire and the Anderson Creek Wildfire of 2016. But the land and its people will recover. This post follows some of the initial recovery of nature from this natural event. 

Western Wheatgrass exemplifies the natural progression of cool season grasses and
              later, the warm season species in the barren-looking uplands. But, those are coming             on thanks to some timely and life sustaining rains and are showing some green in a scorched landscape.

Bases of yucca plants, resilient to fire events, stand out like sedent sentries to
the backdrop of Clark State Fishing Lake.

Up to six inches of rain have blessed Clark County after the
horrendous wild fire that swept the land. It gave life back to
a parched country and replenished Clark State Fishing Lake 
as shown by a quite active spillway.

Prairie and fire are natural friends. The regrowth has begun
with marked indifference to other destruction to humans, livestock,
and man-made things.

Fire, whether from prescribed burns or a wild fire such as this one,
can provide some control of undesirable plants such as Prickly
Pear cacti. There are some good things realized for rangeland
as a result of such a horrible wild fire event.

Some old abandoned farm houses were destroyed with little significant
loss realized. Others were so much more unfortunate.

Some life is reappearing. Most reptiles had not emerged from
winter hibernation yet at the time of the fire. But some, such as
this Prairie Lizard, came out under less-than-ideal reptilian
conditions, finding little to eat.

Blooming of this Wild Violet reminds us of rebirth
and beauty following disaster in a blackened landscape.

While many desired hardwood trees died in this event, streams gain
water and grasses rejoice.

A heart-breaking loss from this wild fire was the
state/world record Little (Texas) Walnut tree.
In a land of many current contrasts, this
loss particularly stands out.

     It's a hard reality for so many residents of the Red Hills to have experienced so much grief in this horrendous wild fire. We work so hard to encourage prescribed burns to enhance rangeland for cattle and wildlife. But this fire was so contrary to sound management. The Anderson Creek Wildfire from 2016 burned through a lot of cedar-infested hills and did a lot to eventually help reclaim the land to better overall productivity. But the Starbuck Wildfire was essentially a grass fire and a solemn testament that sometimes, nature simply holds the upper hand. Few would have thought that a "grass fire" could have caused so much destruction. But the unfortunate combination of very low humidity, very high winds, a healthy fuel load from a couple of years of decent precipitation and an accidental ignition reminds us of the ultimate reality of some traumatic natural events.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

March Madness

     Slightly over two weeks out from the disastrous Starbuck Wildfire sees the land sprouting back to life. The worst wildfire in Kansas recorded history scorched nearly 670,000 acres of Clark and Comanche county's finest ranch lands. Thousands of head of livestock, thousands of miles of fencing, homes, outbuildings, wildlife and human lives were lost in Oklahoma and Kansas. Some ranches may not recover. Yes, it is bad. But the green hope is sprouting from the ashes. I'll attempt to help convey that sense--a sense of hope, responding, rebuilding, replacing, recovering. The land has done this for eons. It's our challenge to see if our rural society can duplicate nature's tendency. There is little doubt in the Red Hills that the rural community will!
     The Ashland Cemetery overlooks a meadow of green hope springing up after the March lion blazed through this region on the 6th day of the month.

A parched land has suffered from lack of rain in the Red Hills then receives further insult
from this wildfire. Nature considers it natural. The human residents see it a bit differently.

Momma with a newborn calf awaits a hay delivery in a barren landscape.

American currant blooms provide assurances that spring is indeed here in spite of a stark, burned background.

New grass in a road ditch keeps uneasy company with encroaching sand from the neighboring field.
Wind is a huge worry while everyone and everything awaits some rain to stimulate regrowth
and protection from erosion.

The only thing more welcome than rain is green, and the red soil of the Red Hills complements it quite well.

This fire wind was so intense, it was able to jump Clark State Fishing Lake. 

Lizard tracks in wind-blown sand impart an optimism of nature
or rather a simple reality that life goes on.

The sand reveals some feathered friends who have survived the inferno--
Ring-necked pheasants in this case.  
Unfortunately, a fire like this denudes the land and exposes fragile soils
to wind erosion which can fill roadside ditches. A little rain would go a long ways right now!

The resiliency of the grassland is embodied in the new green shoots of yucca.
Some think the land is always beautiful, in any stage of year, weather, and recovery.

     Yes, March Madness has a certain meaning to most of us. But this year's madness in the Red Hills brought about a fiery lion bent on destruction. It accomplished its goal. Now the land, the wildlife, and the people are in a recovery mode. While March may leave like a lamb, hope is for a water-logged one that lingers for a few days and gives the land its desperately needed lifeblood.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Out of the Ashes

       This will not be a post of showy prairie and wildlife pictures with typical flowery accounts of amazing Red Hills attributes. In deference to the major recent disastrous wildfire, I feel compelled to offer some description and photo interpretation even as shock and grief still permeate the air as thick as the smoky haze still blanketing the land. With apologies to those whose nerves and emotions are yet frail, I think it important for people unaffected or unaware of this disaster to gain perspective of its magnitude on the life and lives of the Red Hills. 
        Recovery has started from what represents the largest wildfire in Kansas history, eclipsing the numbers of the huge Anderson Creek Wildfire from last March. This one was worse in ways beyond just size. Nearly 670,000 acres of prairie along with homes, shelterbelts, fences and other structures burned in the Starbuck Fire which started in Oklahoma and charred most of Clark County and a good portion of western Comanche County in Kansas. Two other concurrent but separate fires brought total affected acres to over 830,000. Sadly, the worst losses were in human lives in Oklahoma and in Kansas. This fact alone made this fire so much worse than last year's.This portrayal is in black and white to impart the somber reality of the disaster. There will be recovery of the land and its people which will receive the appropriate rejoicing when the time comes. If we are patient and enjoy the good graces of some timely precipitation and the incredible help from so many sources, nature and the land's people will recover. Current grief and fear of the future are being replaced by generosity and support of so many others wishing to help--help appreciated in so many ways.

This iconic store of Englewood still stands, guarding the intersection of tragedy, heroism, loss, and hope.
 Several families lost their homes here.
This land is fragile. The naked sandy soils will be very vulnerable to wind erosion.
Hope is for precipitation soon to help regrowth of the prairie and retaining the precious topsoil.
Ranchers are busily repairing and replacing thousands of miles of fence.
Gracious donations and government programs are helping immensely but it's going to take a long time!

With humidity levels in single digits and winds exceeding 50mph at times, everything in the blaze's path including shelterbelts were as vulnerable as the dry, dormant grasslands.

Sadly, many homes including new and old were burned to the ground.

The somber mood of the Englewood Cemetery evokes a sad time accurately.

Poor livestock caught in the inferno had little chance.
Hundreds of head of cattle were lost; some ranchers
lost their entire herds.

Some survivors were in such bad shape, the only
humane thing to do was put them down...quickly
if possible!
Wildlife such as this Bobwhite also suffered although this bird
was found days later from seemingly other unknown causes
but likely related to the fire. Residents report seeing pheasants,
deer, turkey and other wildlife lucky to have escaped the inferno.

One of several homes destroyed in Englewood. What if it was yours?

Ashland was spared through heroic efforts of firefighters.
The saloon survives for another round.

A small yucca offers yet some remaining green in the landscape.
A week later, a sheen of green can be seen from grasses
persisting on deeper soil moisture from earlier rains.
The flow of the Cimarron River is indifferent to the recent catastrophic
events on the landscape. The flow represents the resilient spirit of the people
and the wildlife of this beautiful country--and it will be beautiful again!

To help you can assist any landowners you may know who need help with various recovery efforts. A good place to donate is:
Ashland Community Foundation where contributions will go towards those who most need assistance in many forms. Go to: to find out how to donate.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Landscape-Final selection for the 8 Natural Wonders of the Red Hills

     Called the Gyp Hills towards the eastern portion and the Red Hills further west, this special landscape exhibits the antithesis to the common perception of a flat Kansas--not that there's anything bad about that though! But this two million acre area of southcentral-southwest Kansas portrays scenes of beauty rarely matched anywhere. Harboring the second largest intact prairie  in Kansas, the mixed-grass, this landscape harbors a corresponding complement of  unique plant and animal species. Natural resource experts have labeled the Red Hills as the second most important biological Kansas ecosystem as well, second only to the vast Tallgrass Prairie in the eastern part of the state and into northern Oklahoma. The Red Hills region boasts clear, spring-fed streams, bountiful white-tailed deer, cougars, Lesser prairie-chickens, spectacular wildflower displays, caves with bats, unique geological features, fossils of the Cretaceous seas of 100 million years ago and amazing scenery--all featured in earlier Natural Wonders of the Red Hills in this blog. Without further justification, let the pictures tell the story which presents the "landscape" as the 8th and perhaps the most definitive Natural Wonder feature of the Red Hills. Gyp Hills or Red Hills--my easy way to characterize the naming conundrum is that if gyp is showing, it's the Gyp Hills; otherwise "Red Hills" suffices well and is typically the name applied to the greater area typically known for the canyons, rolling hills, intact grasslands and special features of this Land of Enchantment.

Bear Creek Ridge greets the fortunate visitor just South
of Sun City, Barber County. In the fall, Sand Lily dresses up the prairie.

The most iconic feature of the Red Hills
is Flower Pot Mountain, here shrouded in morning fog.

Big Swartz Canyon in southeast Comanche County
ranks at the top of unique geologic and biologic features
in the Red Hills. Numerous caves are found here because
of the solubility of the whitish gypsum. This particular series
of gyp outcrops, ridges, caves and unique plants and animals
probably deserves special recognition by its own right as
a special natural wonder of not only the Red Hills but for
Kansas and this part of the Great Plains.

The mouth of Big Swartz Canyon features Swartz Mound (middle pointed
feature). Mr. Swartz supposedly had a trading post here in the late
19th century servicing local pioneers and settlers as well as an alternate
route from the Ft. Zarah to Ft. Supply trail. 

The incised canyons of southwest Barber County exhibit
the characteristic Blaine Formation layer of gypsum.

Livestock is an integral and very important aspect to
the Red Hills forming a critical relationship
between well-managed grazed range and a healthy landscape.

Big Round Cap is a treasured capstone on the eastern edge
of the Red (Gyp) Hills. Being closer to Medicine Lodge, one
must be careful to use the Gyp Hills moniker which is
the more common name used in these parts.

Cheyenne sandstone sports colorful lichens with a foreground
of Prairie Gaillardia in a beautiful area in  southeast Kiowa County.

After several years of drought, the Red Hills explode in
green beauty in this part of western Clark County. While
 called Gyp Hills further east, here they are
specifically called "Red Hills."
A butte on the eastern edge of the Red (Gyp) Hills reflects
through fog in one of the many ponds characteristic of this landscape.

A little bit of gyp, a splash of smooth sumac, with a backdrop of
rolling hills and the small town of Medicine Lodge adorn this image.
Morning fog shrouds the Salt Fork of the Arkansas River valley
in southwest Barber County.

The fall colors of sumac with still-green leaves against
the contrasting gypsum layer accent any images.

A landowner and resource specialist admire the
positive effects of the Anderson Creek Wildfire occurring
in March of 2016 and review benefits from prior cedar
cutting efforts performed by the rancher.

The escarpment from the eastern plateau of the
 Red (Gyp) Hills is one of the
most picturesque features of this Land of Enchantment.

The eight natural wonders of the Red Hills:
St. Jacob's Well, Caves, Wildflowers, Grasslands, Wildlife, Fossils, Streams, and the Landscape.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Streams--the seventh of a series of the eight Natural Wonders of the Red Hills

The Medicine River at Lake City in Barber County sports its fall wardrobe.
Photo by Lee Ann Brunson
     From the larger rivers of the Red Hills to the smallest of canyon rivulets, the wonderful stream resources of the Red Hills are the lifeblood of the region. The streams are the critical water avenues of human and wild commerce in The Kansas Outback. Often taken for granted, the larger streams are generally permanent flowing, especially in the upper reaches. The Salt Fork of the Arkansas, Crooked Creek, Cimarron River, Bluff Creek, Calvary Creek, and Medicine River represent the larger of these resources. North bank tributaries to the Medicine River, in particular, are fed by a permanent pleistocene-age water source, the Great Bend Prairie Aquifer. These notable streams include Thompson, Spring, Soldier, Turkey, and Elm creeks. Mule Creek and Amber Creek are other significant tributaries in the region. This aquifer also represents life-giving water to communities, industries and agriculture in counties north of the Red Hills. These surface drains to this buried reservoir have constant flow, nurturing tremendous aquatic and riparian plant and animal diversity. Southern red belly dace and Arkansas darters dance above the gravelly, sandy creek bottoms. Red-spotted toads depend on canyon creeks for breeding sites. Barred owls haunt the riparian forests. This land of enchantment is a natural quilt of exotic, wild inhabitants all tied together by the water network of life-giving aquatic threads--the streams of the Red Hills. 

Medicine River at Sun City--named for its natural salts and used for
its known healing powers by Native Americans
Bear Creek out of its banks (Barber County)

Overhanging bank on Little Bear Creek, Barber County
Cimarron River, Comanche County

North Branch Elm Creek, Barber County
A small rivulet on a Barber County ranch showing flow
after the Anderson Creek Wildfire of March, 2016

A winter scene on Elm Creek, near Elm Mills
The uppermost reach of Nescatunga Creek, Comanche County

Salt Fork of the Arkansas River coated by morning fog,
Zbar Ranch, Barber County

Turkey Creek, Barber County

Icy time at North Branch Elm Creek, Barber County

A small, un-named rivulet showing flow recovery
following the eradication of eastern
red cedar trees from the Anderson Creek
Wildfire from March, 2016

Earlier recognized natural wonders of the Red Hills:
St. Jacob's Well, Caves, Wildflowers, Grasslands, Wildlife, and Fossils. Stay tuned for the eighth and final natural wonder soon!