Removing junipers

A project to remove juniper trees from the area around Burley, Idaho, is continuing.

The Burley Landscape Juniper Project will enlarge its footprint in southcentral Idaho this year.

Partners in the juniper-removal project, part of the 2010 Sage Grouse Initiative, this year will start treating about 50,000 acres in the Goose Creek Watershed area south of Oakley, under a new U.S. Bureau of Land Management environmental assessment.

The group in 2017 finished treating 30,000 acres south and east of Burley three years ahead of a deadline included in a 2010 BLM assessment that defined project boundaries and established procedures for BLM grazing allotments, said Connor White, range and wildlife conservationist with Pheasants Forever, which has done much of the contracting. Work last year focused on private land. About $4 million has been spent so far.

USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and BLM started the project on BLM grazing allotments and private land. Partners include Idaho Department of Lands, Idaho Fish and Game and landowners.

“The partnership we have going has strengthened, and it has exceeded expectations,” said David Mabey, NRCS district conservationist based in Burley. Treatments have been uniform across ownership and jurisdictional boundaries, he said.

Juniper plants compete for water, nutrients and sunlight with sage brush and other perennials. White said junipers provide raptor perches and increase the risk of depredation. Junipers also reduce the understory of low-to-the ground plants that sage grouse prefer for brooding, nesting and rearing. The birds will start avoiding an area with juniper densities as low as three to four trees per acre, he said.

Western Watersheds Project has challenged juniper removal, saying improper grazing harms sage grouse more than junipers. White said the Burley project can benefit grouse habitat and help prevent its fragmentation while avoiding total loss of production-agriculture uses.

“And what is good for sage grouse is good for cattle,” Mabey said. “It improves landscape grazing conditions.” Risk of intense wildfire also drops.

The first project emphasized live, green junipers. New work will concentrate on knocking down skeletons of burned plants and trees. White said the first site included some of the highest-priority habitat areas. The new work area includes important habitat and some harder-to-access spots.

Mastication has been used where juniper density is high and there is little or no understory of perennial plants, Mabey said. Native grass and forb seeds are broadcast aerially before crews use large equipment to grind junipers and scatter debris, which helps protect seedlings and provides mulch.

“We do see very good results with seeding and mastication,” White said. “However, it can be fairly expensive, ranging to nearly $500 per acre, plus seed.” It was used at many sites within the first project’s boundaries but only 15 percent of land area.

A lop-and-scatter approach—whereby hand crews cut down junipers to no more than 6 inches to ensure the plant dies, and then chop and scatter the debris—costs $125 or less per acre and can cover substantial amounts of land in a day, he said. Slash heights are reduced to no more than two feet to reduce fire fuel loads.

Mabey said lop-and-scatter works well where juniper density is not high and there is an understory of perennials.

The approach used depends on the condition of a site, how far it is from ideal sage grouse habitat, and cost-effectiveness, he said.

Work at the new site is scheduled after the 2019 wildfire season.

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