Pinyon-juniper chaining project will benefit wildlife, watershed

Published: Thursday, Nov. 8 2007 12:22 a.m. MST

Deer, elk and a portion of the watershed draining into the Duchesne River will benefit from the recent chaining of pinyon-juniper trees on the foothills of Tabby Mountain in north-central Utah.

Roughly 1,000 acres of pinyon-juniper were knocked down using a heavy chain pulled by bulldozers. The project included 600 acres on the Blacktail Ridge and another 400 in Sandwash.

The project is a cooperative effort among the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and its partners: the Bill Barrett Corp., the U.S. Forest Service and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

The Bill Barrett Corp. pledged $20,800 to the project as mitigation for wildlife disturbances. The Forest Service and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation donated $60,000 and $7,500 respectively. Another $100,000 came through the DWR as part of Utah's Watershed Restoration Initiative.

"The area is losing its wildlife habitat and watershed values because of the pinyon-juniper," said Alison Whittaker, DWR habitat biologist. "An area under a mature pinyon-juniper stand of trees has virtually no understory of grasses, forbs or shrubs. As a result, there is little for wildlife to eat. And water can just hit the ground and run off, stripping the land of its topsoil and creating some major erosion problems.

"The woodland in this area is quite extensive," she said. "Our goal is to break it up and create openings with more vegetation. We don't want to eliminate the woodland because it does provide some benefits to wildlife and watersheds. We just want to restart succession in some areas and create a mosaic of old and new as it would have been before people started controlling fires."

"The project is well under way before the first chain gets hooked up," Whittaker said. "First, biologists identify target areas based on the potential value they have for wildlife and watersheds. Then the biologists look inside the target areas using a combination of maps, aerial photos and on-the-ground surveys.

"A habitat plan is then developed. The plan includes the final areas that will be treated, methods of manipulation, such as chaining and burning, reseed mixes and sources of funding. It's almost always an interagency, multicooperator project by this time. When the plans get the final signatures, then it's time to get out on the ground."

However, before a chaining or prescribed burn can start, an archaeological survey must be completed.

"Crews are sent in to check the area for archaeological sites," Whittaker said. "We don't want to accidentally destroy something that has historical value. Once we get clearance, the actual project can begin."

The Blacktail Ridge and Sandwash areas were chained twice.

"Two big bulldozers pulled an anchor chain through the project site," Whittaker said. "By pulling it one direction, and then reversing direction and pulling it through again, we get a better knock down and uprooting of the trees. It also grinds them up a bit and prepares the soils for the seeds. We didn't chain the entire area; instead we chained a series of openings.

"The openings were seeded with three brush species. Seeds from bitterbrush, fourwing saltbrush and mahogany were spread into the tracks while the bulldozers did the chaining. Another mix of 12 species of plants, mostly grasses and forbs, was flown on just after the chaining. The final species — sagebrush — will be flown on in early winter, hopefully after a good snowfall."

Unfortunately, wildlife habitat projects like this one don't provide immediate results.

"It takes time for the plants to get established, so this project is a long-term vision," Whittaker said. "This year's efforts may not be readily visible for years. The grasses and forbs will respond first, and they'll provide some forage and help prevent erosion. The larger shrubs will take years to reach maturity. For example, sagebrush takes about 20 years to mature."

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