Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Juniper Chomp

Photographs by Ken Miracle.

Junipers are a native tree in Idaho. So why is The Nature Conservancy helping to chomp them up?
Junipers may be native, but they are still spreading rapidly into sagebrush country--far too rapidly for wildlife. Why?

Improper grazing management, fire suppression and possibly climate change have created conditions for junipers to encroach and overtake sagebrush habitat.

In the Owyhees, analysts estimate that junipers are expanding their range by 2500 acres per year.

Sage grouse require open areas to display in the spring time. Junipers provide the perfect perch for raptors, so the grouse avoid these areas. In the shade of junipers, grasses and other plants important for wildlife disappear--leading also to increased likelihood of soil erosion.
When juniper encroaches, it affects the whole ecosystem.
Enter the juniper crunching machine. The Nature Conservancy is working the the Owyhee Local Sage Grouse Working Group and Jordan Valley Coordinated Weed Management Area to use this machine--called a juniper masticator--to chomp up the spreading junipers.

The project is focusing on meadow areas important for sage grouse.
The machine is relatively light so it has a very low impact on sagebrush and native grasses. It literally chomps up the entire juniper tree. The masticator chomps the tree all the way the ground--if even one branch remains, the juniper just regrows.

When the project is finished, nice meadows with sagebrush and native grasses will be all that remains--perfect for sage grouse and other wildlife.
The masticator leaves nothing but mulch, so the chomped up juniper is returned to the soil.

This is a demonstration project, and one of the hopes is that this form of juniper control can be applied to private ranchlands and provide a new source of income to ranchers.

If proven cost effective, the chomped-up juniper would be sold for biofuel or mulch--a sustainable industry that would also improve habitat conditions in the Owyhees and other sagebrush habitat.--Matt Miller


Robert Mortensen said...

I don't envy the folks that have to make decisions based on "What would Nature do?" I can see how fire suppression by man negatively impacts that "natural" way that Earth takes care of itself. And it is hard to know when natural selection makes one plant or animal overtake other species as has been happening for millions of years. It's a tough balance to find, so as long as you're favoring the birds, I'm all for it!

Heather said...

If "improper grazing management" is partly to blame for this change in habitat why are we not changing grazing leases? I can't imagine we can chomp trees fast enough to make much of a difference. Reducing or banning grazing on public lands would do so much more to help natural habitat.