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Enhancing habitat in the Book Cliffs

At a recent sportsmans expo in Salt Lake City, a national expert on mule deer was asked a simple question, "If you could do one thing for mule deer, what would it be?" The person was likely looking for an easy answer but what he got was one that takes dedication. The expert told him there was no single answer, there were two: the weather and quality habitat.

Since managing the weather falls in another department, wildlife managers have concentrated on improving habitat.

In the northern Book Cliffs during the last five years, 62,700 acres of habitat have been treated by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management and other partners. Most of these acres are in crucial deer summer and winter range. Natural and prescribed fires have also improved thousands more acres and there has been a considerable amount of work done prior to five years ago and by other agencies and organizations.

Why the effort?

Biologically and behaviorally, mule deer are sensitive to changes and loss of habitat. Unlike elk, which are great explorers and able to move around and find new places, mule deer are traditionalists. They have set patterns and will move through an area of good habitat to reach one in which they will starve.

Comprehensive studies indicate mule deer habitats across the west have been in decline for the last 60 years. The decline is due to a combination of factors including but not limited to: human developments, overgrazing, invasive non-native species, changes in the weather and key forage plants, like sagebrush, just getting old. Unfortunately, all of these are also happening in the Book Cliffs.

To reverse this trend, biologists and land managers from multiple agencies and organizations have begun targeting crucial areas for habitat restoration in the Book Cliffs. Their goal is to protect and enhance one of Utah's premier deer herds. A herd that is highly sensitive to changes because it has limited summer range and many of its traditional wintering areas are in poor condition due to weather, age of plants, and past habitat/land uses and future human developments.

Habitat Work In The Northern Book Cliffs

Between 2005 and 2010, bullhogs have been used to clear 4,670 acres. Bullhogs are large mobile shredders which grind up trees and other vegetation to clear an area and create a mulch to protect seeds and new growth. Another 28,743 acres has been treated by a Lop and Scatter (LOP) method. LOP crews cut down invasive vegetation, usually pinyon and juniper trees, which invade sagebrush flats and other more productive deer habitats.

Another 855 acres have been chained, harrowed or drill seeded. These methods use bulldozers or tractors to drag a chain, harrow or drill, which knocks down some vegetation and disturbs the soils to better accept seeds.

Herbicides have been applied to 450 acres of greasewood and there have been several projects designed to enhance springs or to create/repair guzzlers. Biologists have also planted willows and other bare-root shrubs and trees to help repair riparian or stream-side areas.

With most of the above treatments, the areas have been seeded with a mix of forbs, shrubs and grasses designed to provide deer, elk and other wildlife with food and shelter.

The agencies have also applied seed to enhance or create habitat in areas cleared by natural fires in the Book Cliffs. Roughly a third of the nearly 100,000 acres of wildfire areas have been treated with aerial seeding. Seeding efforts have been concentrated in areas crucial to the deer herds and/or places where the biologists are concerned about invasion by non-native plants or preventing erosion.

Working for wildlife by enhancing habitat in the Book Cliffs is far from over. Biologists have already completed the paperwork and preparation for several new bullhog, LOP, water and other enhancements for 2011, and other projects are in the development stages. Just over the last two weeks, crews applied over 1,000 pounds of sagebrush and forage kochia seed to 750 acres.

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