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Ranchers and environmentalists team up to save aspens

Published July 31, 2012 1:52 pm

Ranchers, environmentalists and state and federal officials band together to create new grazing and forest plan to help save the trees.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Koosharem • The big, old aspens on Monroe Mountain aren't growing little aspens anymore, and it's hardly just "tree-huggers" who are worried.

The 175,000-acre mountain southeast of Richfield is the summer home of 972 cows and 1,496 sheep, plus a swarming elk herd that was nowhere to be seen before the 1980s. All three of those species rely on airy aspen groves where grasses and leafy plants thrive, but all three also eat aspen twigs and keep them from growing into new tree stands.

Without a change, spruce, fir or sagebrush could take over, decreasing forage and forcing some livestock off the mountain — either by U.S. Forest Service rule or by simple lack of calories. A collaboration of environmentalists, ranchers and state and federal officials is working on a new grazing and forestry plan that, among other things, aims to give some places a respite from nibbling teeth so aspens get a head start toward the 7-foot height that generally means safety.

"We're 100 percent for it," said Greenwich-based rancher Rayne Bagley, who pays the Forest Service for the chance to run cattle on the mountain and meets monthly with the collaboration committee. "If we get the aspen back, it increases our feed."

That's the primary goal for ranchers, who want a system that gives them the same time or more to graze on the mountain.

Other partners, including the Grand Canyon Trust and the Utah Environmental Congress, want aspens to persist as wildlife harbors or even just forest cover instead of dry scrublands.

"This looks like a really cool aspen forest," Utah Environmental Congress program manager Kevin Mueller said while walking through a stand of century-old white trees. "But the more you learn about it, you realize it actually is on a trajectory to become sagebrush."

Several of the partners walked parts of the mountain late this month taking samples and setting up study locations so student interns could return in coming years and record how grazing changes affect aspen regrowth. They also cut the smallest trees in each place to count the rings and learn the last time aspens were able to grow past mouth height.

In most cases, the youngest trees were 20 or 30 years old — more or less pre-elk. That's a point that Grand Canyon Trust botanist Mary O'Brien hopes to learn more about.

Motion-detector cameras that the team has set up photograph elk grazing and browsing in the same places as cows — sometimes at the same time — and fencing cattle out during range rest periods will help determine how much aspen the elk are eating.

Working for a rebound • O'Brien, who directs the trust's Utah forests program, compares the possibilities to the rebound of Yellowstone National Park's Northern Range after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced wolves in the 1990s. One study, she noted, found that the youngest surviving cottonwood to have escaped elk browsing there dated to the 1920s: the last years before native wolves were eradicated in Yellowstone.

Wolves aren't part of the Monroe Mountain discussion, but dogs are. The partners have discussed using more sheep dogs to startle and perhaps move elk more than they now move around the mountain.

It's possible the data will suggest a need for hunters to shoot more of the elk off the mountain, which could be politically challenging in an area that the state has successfully managed to produce some monster trophies.

"We don't know yet," said Kim Chapman, a Utah State University livestock extension agent on the collaboration team. "Until we're able to quantify who's eating what, it's hard to make any hard and fast recommendations."

For now the proposal includes fencing and water development to allow seasonal containment of livestock in certain pastures. Where none of the pastures on the mountaintop now see a full year's rest, three are proposed to rest in rotations.

Ranchers will help install the pipes and fences, either with money or labor.

"They may be a little nervous of the change factor," Chapman said, "but they're willing to back it with their pocketbooks."

The Forest Service also is considering combining two big allotments leased to multiple ranchers, increasing flexibility to move livestock around.

Dual goals • Tom Tippets, central region coordinator for the state Agriculture and Food Department's Grazing Improvement Program, said forest forage is crucial. Hay costs $200 a ton, so running out of food on the mountain and driving stock back to the farm is costly. Without changes, he fears the mountain grazing season could contract by weeks.

His goal for the collaboration? "Same number [of livestock] for the same time."

O'Brien's goal — beyond local aspen restoration and data collection — is to set an example.

If the collaboration can work here, she said, it could influence statewide forest planning and even an expected new national set of rules governing grazing on national forests. Working together for both trees and ranchers could become the norm.

"This is the first time a group has tried to look at a whole mountain, and it's got the whole suite of aspen issues," she said. "It's a working example of the kind of collaboration that, supposedly, the Forest Service is wanting to encourage."

She gives much credit to Jason Kling, Richfield District ranger for the Fishlake National Forest. He opened the planning process to this kind of outside help, in the process opening it to extra scrutiny.

Kling said the result is a possible solution that he's unsure his agency could have reached on its own. Also, he said, the persistent threat of environmental lawsuits and appeals made the potential payoff for up-front cooperation obvious.

"There's enough issues that it's going to take a team effort," he said.

Fishlake officials will finalize a grazing proposal and put it out for public comment next year.

bloomis@sltrib.comTwitter: @brandonloomis