Life’s good right now if you’re a juniper tree. The climate has been drier and warmer. Fire happens only once in a while. This has caused junipers and pinyon pines to start growing out into sagebrush steppe. But more pinyon and juniper cover means the sagebrush is being choked out, causing sage grouse to leave.
“Latest research has shown once tree cover becomes over 4 percent in a sagebrush stand then sage grouse discontinue using that area. Once we remove those trees we’ve shown the sage grouse to come back,” said Danny Summers, restoration ecologist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Great Basin Research Center.
He works closely with Utah’s Watershed Restoration Initiative, or WRI. He defended chaining, a practice of removing vegetation in large areas by linking a metal chain between two pieces of heavy machinery, as one step in a process designed to bring back sagebrush and sage grouse.
“Mechanical removal of pinyon and juniper are really the most popular and most effective ways,” Summers said. “At early stages of encroachment we use chainsaw crews to remove trees. As tree encroachment gets thicker, there’s a couple of other techniques. The one that’s been in the news the most is chaining. These methods are effective in removing the trees and preparing a seed bed.”
After the trees are removed, seeds of native plants are dropped from an airplane onto the cleared area. Sagebrush seeds are very tiny. Only five percent of them grow and survive two years after being broadcast.
Summers defended the seeding method, stating it was the most economical of WRI’s options. Their methods do show results.
“We’ve shown good success at establishing diverse communities of grasses, forbs and shrubs in these pinyon and juniper removal projects,” Summers said.
According to WRI, there are no chaining projects under consideration for funding in 2019. The former Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument management plan specifically banned chaining within the monument, although a new management plan has not yet been written.
UPR previously reported on Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance's criticism of the vegetation removal practice known as chaining.