The sound of a Utah juniper tree turning into woodchips is deafening. The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources is currently removing junipers and pinyon pines at 45 sites in the state using a "bullhog." The division said the treatment will allow more grasses, forbs and sagebrush to take over, thus helping wildlife.
“Even though the pinyon-juniper does provide a bit of value to wildlife," said Daniel Eddington, the habitat conservation coordinator for the division, "that sagebrush grass and forb community provides a lot of habitat for mule deer that are wintering. A lot of sage grouse are there.“
He said the tree removal, happening on private, state and federal lands, is a net benefit for the state’s species.
Some environmentalists don’t think the division is really thinking through the problem, however. Laura Welp, an ecosystem specialist for the Western Watersheds Project, said the projects are oversimplified.
“It’s a very simplistic understanding of how things work, then people like me get nervous because if you actually look into the literature and the history of what has been done, it’s a lot more complicated than what is being portrayed by DWR," she said.
Welp used to be a botanist for Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which just a month ago got shot down by an interior department judge for trying to do the exact same thing to its trees on the Skutumpah Terrace.
Welp said the division isn’t considering the subtleties of different ecosystems and the varying needs of wildlife. For example, the pinyon jay needs mature trees to feed on, and because of a decline in pinyon pines, the jay’s population has declined more than 85% since 1970.
“These treatments tend to use one method and just mow it like a lawn," she said. "That knocks things back to whoever or whatever is going to do well under those conditions.”
Welp said treatment itself is not the problem but encourages land managers to look at the landscape like a mosaic and treat it as such.