Uinta Basin Winter Range Habitat Work Continues

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"They've been like kids in a toy shop," said Walt Donaldson, regional supervisor for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR). "The excitement is incredible."

As you listen to the groups discussing the values and faults of double drum and single drum aerators, imprinters, smooth chains, Ely chains, Truax drills and old rangeland drills, Brush-hogs, Cyclone spreaders, tractor-rig herbicide sprays, aerial seeding and prescribed burns, it does remind you of your kids' intense negotiations over baseball cards or the latest toys.

What's all the excitement about? It's about the recent habitat work being done in the Uinta Basin.

Work is underway

"It's been almost 15 years since the last chaining was done in Utah," said Steve Brayton, DWR habitat manager. "Many of the biologists working for the division, the Forest Service (USFS), the BLM (Bureau of Land Management), the SCS (Soil Conservation Service) and the Ute Indian tribe, or for wildlife-related organizations like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF), Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife (SFW), the Diamond Mountain Landowners Association (DMLA), Shikar Safari, the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep (FNAWS) and the Mule Deer Foundation (MDF), haven't had a chance to actually see what a chaining can do.

"There are also newer technologies developed, like the double drum aerator, so getting a chance to see several techniques in action on rangelands is exciting," he said.

Personnel in the DWR's Habitat Section have been busy. This year, land management agencies in the Uinta Basin have been involved in more than 20 projects. More than 50,000 acres of rangeland has been enhanced, improving wildlife habitat, fire retention, watershed stability, aspen and sagebrush regeneration, and grazing on these lands.

Groups pull together

Most of this work has required partnerships. The partnerships provide biological, technical and logistical support and help fund the projects. Much of the coordination has been through the Uinta Basin Conservation and Development Group (UBCDG), which has brought together personnel from state, federal and local government agencies, oil and gas development, agriculture, and conservation groups.

"The partnerships are essential, especially when you consider the scale of the work being done," Donaldson said. "No agency has the expertise or the funds to cover the roughly $4 million price tag of the work we are doing. And this is just the beginning."

Habitat needs help

"During the severe drought of 2002 and 2003, we lost over 217,000 acres of sagebrush," Donaldson said. "Most of this was critical deer and elk winter range. It was also year-round habitat for sage grouse, pronghorn and other sage-dependent species. One of the reasons we lost so much was the sagebrush was old and decadent. The understory also shows signs of aging and in many places, it has been invaded by cheatgrass."

Much of the rangeland in the Uinta Basin is comprised of old, single-aged brush species with only a few species of native plants in the understory. A healthy sagebrush community needs a mix of age classes of shrubs, grasses and forbs (flowering plants). In many cases, effective fire suppression has allowed the communities to reach an extreme climax stage rather than having a healthier mix of young, mature and older age plants.

Wildlife and land management agencies in the Uinta Basin were already taking steps to address the problem when the drought brought the issue to a boil. Some partnerships between the agencies and conservation groups had been formed but with the addition of the counties, oil and gas development, agriculture and private groups, work really began to hit the ground.

Twenty-two sites listed

There are 22 sites currently listed on the UBCDG projects list. The projects cover all three counties with more than 50,000 acres of enhancements. If you talk with a biologist from one of the agencies, he can usually add several smaller projects that their agency is working on that didn't make the UBCDG list. As one biologist commented, the range of techniques being used is a "real smorgasbord."

"We are doing a bit of experimenting," Brayton said. "How do we get the best bang for our buck? What will work and under what conditions? Each area is a little different. There are numerous physical factors involved including terrain, primary vegetation, condition of the understory and precipitation. Then add in the size of the project, cheatgrass invasion, availability of equipment, archeological clearances, a few legal issues and the cost per acre. We've tried to match the technique to the conditions and desired results."

Most of the project work has been hired out to local contractors. The agencies often supply the contractors with specialized equipment, such as the Ely chain. Some of the projects that have gotten the most attention, because of their size, equipment needs or state of development, are the Santaquin Draw, Red Fleet Complex, Mustang Fire and Lake Canyon projects.

Santaquin Draw

One of the larger projects is in Duchesne County near Tabby Mountain. The Santaquin Draw project, completed this fall, involved roughly 1,400 acres of sagebrush and 300 acres of pinyon-juniper (P-J) on DWR lands. After getting archeological clearances, the area was aerially seeded with grasses and forbs, chained with an Ely chain and then reseeded with sagebrush seed. Partners include the DWR, RMEF and the Uintah High School welding program.

Red Fleet Complex

Biologists have needed a dance card to keep track of the activities happening around Red Fleet. Work began with archeological clearances and has continued with aerial seeding, a brush-hog mulching 340 acres of P-J, lop-and-scatter (cut by hand) removal of 1,270 acres of P-J, a crested wheatgrass treatment (380 acres) and interseeding with a Truax drill (180 acres). Benefits include enhanced deer, elk and sagegrouse habitat, grazing improvements and fuels reduction. The BLM, DWR, DMLA, RMEF and MDF have partnered to help fund and coordinate the project.

Mustang Fire

Depending on whom you talk with, the Mustang Fire was either a disaster or a great opportunity. Much of this area was already slated for prescribed burning, so biologists from the USFS and DWR stepped up the process and began reseeding and enhancing roughly 2,030 acres cleared by the fire. Some areas have had seedbed preparation while others, especially those in rough terrain, have simply been reseeded by plane. Benefits include enhanced watershed stability and improved habitat for bighorn sheep, elk, deer and numerous small animals. Partners include the USFS, FNAWS and DWR.

Lake Canyon

Work on this property owned by the DWR began with improvements to Lake Canyon Lake for Colorado River cutthroat trout. Further enhancements to the canyon bottom involving a prescribed burn were planned but were not completed due to the irregular burn windows.

The biologists decided to switch tactics this fall and hitched up a double-drum aerator with an attached seeder. The results of this aggressive treatment are impressive. The aerator digs up the greasewood and rabbit brush roots and crushes the stems and branches before it reseeds the prepared bed with a mix of grasses, forbs and shrubs. Roughly 600 acres have been treated to improve the watershed for Colorado River cutthroat trout and enhance ranges for elk, deer and a future reintroduction of bighorn sheep. If the favorable weather continues, biologists plan to chain additional benches covered mostly with sagebrush.

Deadman Bench

Green stripping using a single drum aerator and an imprinter with attached seeder has been the focus of the Deadman Bench project. The 22 miles of 165-foot strips located next to the highway and main access roads are designed to act as an aggressive firebreak. It also will provide some needed habitat for sagegrouse, pronghorn antelope and other sagebrush dependent species. Questar and Newfield Oil companies have partnered with the BLM, DWR and SITLA (State Institutional Trust Lands Agency) to treat roughly 600 acres to protect this critical area.

A Community Effort

"This is a community effort," Donaldson is quick to point out. "Mike Mckee (chairman), Kent Peatross (vice-chairman) and the rest of the UBCDG have been excellent in leading this community effort.

"Not only does this group provide support through expertise and funding, they also provide critical political and educational support," Donaldson said. "The success of this range and watershed enhancement will continue to move forward given this cooperative effort."