Feds set to ‘lop and scatter’ trees near Price to improve sage grouse habitat

‘Enhancement’ project targets 77,000 acres around Gordon Creek for burning, chopping, cutting and piling trees in hopes of boosting fragile bird species.

(Courtesy of Utah Division of Wildlife Resources) Image of Utah acreage targeted in 2015 for so-called 'lop and scatter' of pinyon and juniper trees, aimed at improving the land as habitat for the sage grouse and reducing fire hazards.

The Bureau of Land Management is poised to begin thinning pinyon and juniper trees over a large area in the coal-mining country west of Price.

The public has until Sept. 20 to submit comment on the proposed 77,000-acre project, designed to reduce fire danger and improve habitat for greater sage grouse on a mix of public, state and private lands around and south of Gordon Creek.

Designed in partnership with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, the BLM’s “North Springs Habitat Enhancement Project” aims to clear some of the ground through prescribed burning, lopping and scattering, hand cutting and piling and mechanical shredding. Actual treatments for specific spots will be determined as the project unfolds over the next several years.

“We want to keep all the tools, including biomass utilization,” said BLM spokeswoman Allison Ginn, referring to methods of cutting or grinding trees and brush into small pieces that are spread around to serve as a kind of mulch. “We will favor lop and scatter.”

Parts of the project area fall within the Carbon Sage Grouse Management Area, identified for special conservation measures as part of Utah’s plan to keep the ground-nesting game bird off the endangered species list. The project is an offshoot of the Utah Watershed Restoration Initiative, which seeks to rehabilitate landscapes throughout the state.

Last month, the BLM issued a decision on a similar project, covering nearly 1 million acres in Utah’s West Desert. 

In general, crews on these projects will avoid removing old-growth trees, which play a critical ecological role. The twisted trunks provide habitat for numerous animals, maintain genetic diversity and preserve long-term climate records in their growth patterns.

The BLM’s goal, the agency says, is to leave untreated “islands” of trees and buffer areas to create a mosaic of vegetation.

Pinyon-juniper forests are a natural feature of Utah’s arid steppes, but in the past 150 years, the conifers have encroached into sagebrush — thanks to land-use practices associated with grazing and fire suppression, according to the environmental studies on both projects.

Pinyon-juniper is now 50 percent more widespread than it was historically in Utah. Broad areas of the state are covered with an unbroken canopy that allows fires to spread rapidly and burn with greater intensity, while inhibiting growth underneath that provides forage for grouse and other species of wildlife.

“Removal of encroaching pinyon and juniper can maintain, create new or increase carrying capacity of sage grouse habitat,” wrote DWR restoration biologist Nicole Nielson, who helped design the North Springs project, in an e-mail.  ”Re-seeding for sage grouse habitat restoration can help to meet needed forb [wildflowers], grass and shrub cover needs for sage grouse.”

Following special protocols, the herbicide Imazapic would be applied to areas infested with cheat grass prior to reseeding. The chemical is preferred for use in natural areas because isn’t toxic to mammals, birds and amphibians and only persists a relatively brief 120 days in soils.

The project’s first phase was completed last year on 2,400 acres of state lands. The BLM hopes to begin a second phase this year on 8,400 acres.

“Ideally, we would like to move forward as soon as possible. It depends on weather, staffing and funding,” Ginn said.

Comments can be submitted online or by mail to the BLM Price Field Office, 125 S. 600 West, Price, UT 84501.