By Jacy Glazier
Custer State Park is doing surprisingly well after the Legion Lake Fire burned more than 30,000 acres in the park last December.
So far, all the trails and roads are back to normal and being used by park visitors. A bridge that was burned on Wildlife Loop Road has also been temporarily fixed by park staff, and all guard rails that were damaged have been worked on according to Kobee Stalder, the park’s visitor services coordinator.
“Interior roads will be continually monitored and assessed for fallen trees and debris, as well as flooding concerns after the spring thaw and during large rain events. Remaining objectives for us this winter and early spring will be to replace and install culverts on the interior roads and the Wildlife Loop Road as needed,” Stalder said.
During the fire 16 miles of fencing was damaged and needed to be replaced to contain the wildlife that dwells within park boundaries. Work on fixing the fences began before the fire was even out and so far, a good portion of the eastern boundary fencing along Wildlife Loop Road has been fixed.
“Custer State Park staff along with the help of other Game, Fish and Park Division staff members have done the majority of the work. There is also a contractor, Will Ferguson of Ferguson Construction who is assisting, but the process will take about two years. We are looking to get the boundary fence fixed as soon as possible, but the interior fences will take some time to replace,” Stalder said. “I don’t think enough credit can go to the amazing work all our staff is doing on fire recovery. There is still a lot of work to be done with fencing and fire rehabilitation efforts, but it will all get done before our visitors arrive in the summer.”
As far as wildlife goes, Stalder said that there have been very minimal losses to the bison, elk, deer and pronghorn herds. As reported earlier, three burros had to be humanely euthanized due to burn injuries but the remaining six are on the mend.
“As time goes on we continue to monitor each herd for overall health and post-fire issues. Right now we have about 800 of our 860 bison in the park down in our corrals for food and water. We’re also keeping them there until we can get our boundary fence repaired, so they do not leave the park. Once we get the fence fixed, we will release them out of the corral pasture and back into the park. The remaining 60 bison are mature bulls who are in various areas of the park that did not receive any fire damage, so we know they will be fine and will have plenty of food and water,” Stalder said. “Right now the remaining six burros still have roughly a week left in the critical stages of burn recovery before our resource managers will have a better assessment of their overall health.”
The burros are still being assessed day-to-day as organ failure and infection are still a major concern. Stalder said it is a possibility that burros auctioned off in November from the park could be added back, but for right now they are focusing on recovery efforts.
“We have had people who have bought our burros in the past reach out to us about helping, so we are still keeping that option open, but we will formulate a new herd plan based on how many survive their injuries,” he said.
After a post-fire assessment, Stalder said the blaze burned an estimated 24,400 acres in the forest and woodlands and 12,000 acres of grassland within the park boundary. The park’s main priorities as of now include mapping, forest inventory, salvage logging, reseeding, weed and erosion control, stream rehabilitation, road repairs and fencing.
“It doesn’t matter what month it is when conditions are just right a wildfire can happen in December, January or July,” Stalder said in regards to what the biggest take away from the fire is. “You also realize how versatile the park staff is.
“Fifteen of our 31 full-time employees were on fire suppression duties out in the park and the rest of them worked in supporting capacities for the duration of the fire; for everyone to just drop their day-to-day duties and be adaptable during this event was pretty remarkable to see. We live in a region where wildfires happen. There have been fires before we were here and there will be fires long after we are gone. We just have to continue to do our part and make sure our forests remain healthy.”
Stalder said the current forest resource plan needs to be reevaluated along with evaluating the wildlife caring capacity based on available forage. The park will also continue to monitor dams and do water quality testing.
“We are very thankful that zero of our main structures were lost during the fire and all nine campgrounds and the four resort complexes were not affected. We are looking forward to welcoming back our visitors this summer with no issues. Most visitors that will drive through in the summer won’t even be able to tell that we had a significant fire in the park with how green we expect everything to grow back. Custer State Park has had a long-standing tradition of a high-quality visitor experience and we fully expect to maintain that in 2018,” he said.