Those Blasted Junipers!

Those Blasted Junipers!

Juniper Tree In the summer of 1991 an unlikely meeting of ranchers and environmental protection groups got together here in Burns, Orgeon to try and solve a problem.

The arguement that the ranchers and environmentalists were trying to solve was over 500,000 acres of public and private lands on the north side of the Steens Mountains, about 60 miles south of Burns, Oregon. The area supports cattle and a wide variety of wildlife such as deer, elk, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, and sage grouse.

Bighorn Sheep The environmental groups wanted the area to be turned into a national park excluding cattle grazing, which would put dozens of ranching families out of business. Both groups realized that the land could be improved -- understory grasses used by cattle and wildlife were becoming sparse, and soil was eroding from hillsides. But neither group could pinpoint the cause, so they asked the scientists here at the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center (EOARC) for help. The group asked EOARC's range scientists Dr. Tony Svejcar and Dr. Rick Miller for their scientific expertise.

Juniper dominated site, notice the lack of grasses under the trees One of the major problems turned out to be a natural resident -- juniper trees-- growing amok! EOARC's range scientist Dr. Rick Miller was already studying juniper when they were asked by the group for help. Dr. Miller's research indicates that before settlement, there were only one or two juniper trees per acre! Ideal climate conditions, overgrazing by livestock in the early 1900's, and a decline in wildfires altered the natural balance. Today, many areas of rangeland in the West can have between 200 and 8,000 juniper seedlings per acre!

Dr. Svejcar and Dr. Miller believed that the juniper trees were sucking up the water and nutrients, basically stealing the water that the grasses and shrubs needed to survive. "Juniper creates a drought at the site for everything else." Dr. Svejcar says.

Same site after juniper was cut, notice all of the grasses now on the site

To test their theory, Dr. Svejcar and Dr. Miller set up test plots where half of each plot the juniper trees were cut down and on the other half the juniper trees were left alone. After the first year the cut plots produced twice as much grass as the uncut plots!

Cal Brantly, of the Oregon Native Plants Society, says that before the study, most environmentalists didn't believe that juniper was a problem. But when the scientists from EOARC brought the group members to see the study plots, they were convinced.

Once the group agreed on the problem, they needed to figure out a cure. They turned to the Bureau of Land Management for help. From this working relationship a program of prescribed burning and cutting is being put in to action to help restore the Steens Mountains. By working together and using science this group was able to figure out the problem (too much juniper) and develop a solution (a program of cutting and burning juniper) that was a win-win solution for all groups involved and for the Steens Mountain.

Share this