In conservation circles, we often hear the call to save a native species that is being marginalized to the point of extinction. But in the West’s Great Basin we have a picturesque, aromatic native species that is proliferating to the point of being invasive.
We’re talking about juniper.
Over the past 100 years, scientists have been documenting the spread of juniper at alarming rates across eastern Oregon, down through Nevada, Utah, and into parts of eastern California, with some studies noting as much as a tenfold increase since the late 1800s. This expansion comes with a heavy cost to local ecosystems (e.g. sagebrush habitats) and threatened species such as sage grouse and pygmy rabbits.
Juniper are thirsty trees — a single tree, in the right circumstances, is able to consume 25 gallons on a single day. In dry upland deserts, that can be detrimental to a variety of other species that depend on that limited water to survive.
The reasons for juniper expansion are varied, but researchers see over-grazing practices of the past, fire suppression and changing climate conditions as the leading factors that have led to the species’ success. The situation has land managers and owners, ranchers, and other concerned community members wondering what can be done to halt the juniper’s steady advance in the West.
But addressing the problem is no easy task. Removal of the species at different stages of development and at remote locations can be extremely expensive. And where the species are treated can have varied results on restoration of surrounding habitats. It’s a challenge to figure out how to get the most value from limited resources for habitat restoration.
Ecotrust is partnering with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to build an online Juniper Management tool using the Madrona framework, a software platform developed by Ecotrust to create web-based spatial management tools. The tool will allow land managers to review a suite of juniper-related spatial data layers such as juniper canopy, sage grouse habitat, hydrology, and landownership in an interactive web map viewer, and then build personalized scenarios for juniper removal by defining specific objectives such as how many acres of juniper to remove or whether or not to prioritize removal in sage grouse habitat.
Once specific objectives are defined, a new management scenario is run. The process takes only a few moments, but once completed the interactive map is updated to show areas selected for restoration that meet the defined objectives while also minimizing the costs of treatment. An accompanying report lists specific information for each area selected, such as how many acres of the target area were met and the potential financial cost for removing juniper within the target area. The tool also allows users to share and compare results with other landowners and managers who are using the tool from other locations.
While juniper is now seen by many as an “invader,” it also may offer new market opportunities. The wood can be turned into specialty products, such as fine juniper cabinetry, or more common products such as fence poles and planter boxes. The wood can also help fuel new biofuel facilities, while wild-harvested berries may create a new market for Oregon distilled gin.
Along with careful planning, the Juniper Management tool can help support the restoration of high desert ecosystems while creating economic opportunities for rural communities and innovative entrepreneurs.
Here are a number of other juniper-related initiatives that have sprung up across the West:
Western Juniper Utilization Group: http://orsolutions.org/osproject/juniper
SageCon (Sage Grouse Conservation Partnership): http://orsolutions.org/osproject/sagecon
The Western Juniper Commercialization Project: http://juniper.oregonstate.edu/index.php
Sage Grouse Initiative: www.sagegrouseinitiative.com
Desert Juniper (example of a local business making use of wild Juniper berries): http://www.handcraftedgin.com/
SageSTEP (Sagebrush Steppe Treatment Evaluation Project): http://www.sagestep.org/