DWR habitat improvement is
about more than just deer
By Robert Stevens
STERLING—The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) is in the process of improving the mule deer habitat on more than 500 acres near Sterling.
The project is concentrated in the Six Mile Wildlife Management Area, and uses heavy machinery called “Bull Hogs” to shred juniper trees that compete with the natural forage that supports the mule deer population.
DWR Habitat Program Manager Mark Farmer is heading up the project. Famer oversees the process of removing the troublesome juniper trees to create room for widespread growth of sagebrush, grasses and flowering plants, which mule deer and other wildlife can feed on.
“We are trying to take small areas and do what Mother Nature can’t do anymore,” Farmer says. “We don’t want to take every tree out. We want to leave some trees, but not too many.”
By restoring the mule deer habitat in the area to be able to support the mule deer population better, it will help to keep the animals from migrating down into the valleys, towns and farms as it gets colder.
“We will hopefully save more deer that live on the mountain from coming down to town during winter time, but it won’t reverse the problem now, because the ones that already live there are set in their ways, and they teach their young the same habits,” Farmer says.
According to Farmer, once these highly competitive trees such as pinyon and juniper cover more than 20 percent of the area, its strangles out the food the deer need.
In addition, the process of thinning the trees has other major benefits, not the least of which is helping to prevent wildfire through a reduction of possible fuels.
“Wildfire is a huge concern everywhere,” Farmer says. “We don’t want to see anyone burned out of their homes and this is also a good way to help prevent that.”
Another huge benefit of the project will be an improvement to the soil health with the restoration of ground cover and smaller shrubs.
“Without that cover you get awful erosion,” Farmer says. “When the rain starts, the water just hits the bare ground and strips it all away.”
In college Farmer did a masters project on watershed improvement, and says the difference in the soil health of a treated area is dramatic.
Since the junipers consume about 7-8 gallons of water a day, thinning their numbers also leaves more water behind for the desirable plants and grasses.
Throughout the project, the area is also being reseeded with desirable plants and grass seeds, and the waste material from the shredded junipers becomes ground cover to hold in moisture and help seeds grow better.
According to Farmer, the process of optimizing the mule deer habitat in the Six Mile Wildlife Management Area actually began in the 1970s. The method originally used to clear the trees was dragging chains from heavy equipment to knock the trees down, but many of the trees retained a root structure and just kept growing where they lay.
Now with access to the Bull Hogs, the DWR can more effectively remove the trees, and Farmer says the amount of area that can be treated is only limited by funding and manpower.
Farmer says the immediate goal for the project is to complete 500 acres by June, and once completed they will apply for funding to complete more.