Juniper Madness


The smoke of burning juniper wood was said to aid clairvoyance, and was burned for purification and to stimulate contact with the Otherworld at the autumn Samhain fire festival at the beginning of the Celtic year. Maybe dubious contact with the “Otherworld” is the source of the “evidence” behind the campaign to remove Western Junipers from the sagebrush steppe. Because  it sure isn’t science.

It’s beyond question that Western Junipers (Juniperus occidentalis) is expanding its range. Photos of mountain slopes like Steens Mountain, for example, from 1930 show no sign of the trees; today there are large tracts, some very dense, of the hardy shrub/tree on those mountain slopes. Studies of pollen in lake bottoms show that Western Juniper have undergone similar range expansions and contractions in the past.

But the federal government has declared war on Mountain Junipers. they are being clearcut from Steens Mountain and elsewhere across the Great Basin.

Juniper Slash Pile, Steens Mountain Loop Road, Oregon

Juniper Slash Pile, Steens Mountain Loop Road, Oregon

The tree limbs, top and trunks less than 6 inches in diameter or so are placed in piles, doubtlessly to be burned in the coming winter.

Stockpiled Juniper Tree Trunks, Steens Mountain Loop Road, Oregon

Stockpiled Juniper Tree Trunks, Steens Mountain Loop Road, Oregon

The logs are salvaged. A Hines, Oregon company has  contract for the bigger trees.

It’s being done in the name of Sage Grouse habitat protection. But the science to support the effort is so flimsy as to be laughable. A 2013 study captures the problem nicely:

[T]here is a preponderance of evidence that while, in the short-term, forage production can often increase after mechanical treatments, over-all the negative ecological repercussions of mechanical treatment of both piñon-juniper and sagebrush often tend to outweigh positive ecological benefits, when looking at these systems from the standpoint of ecosystem health, function, and resiliency.

The excuse for clearcutting juniper was that raptors perch on the tops of these trees and ambush Sage Grouse. But there was never much evidence that predation on Sage Grouse increased in areas with more Mountain Juniper. Removal conferred a pretty dubious benefit. But the detriment was pretty indisputable. The process of removing the junipers disturbed the soil surface, leading to significant increases in invasive plant species, especially cheatgrass. Which, of course, harmed the Sage Grouse the removal process was supposed to benefit. The cure, it appears, was much worse than the disease.

The Western Watersheds Project, an environmental watchdog group, appealed the BLM decision to the Interior Board of Land Appeals, an appellate review panel that issues final decisions for the Interior Department. Following the appeal, but before the Board ruled, the BLM asked the review panel to put on hold its May decision, saying Western Watersheds Project “raised issues in its appeal that the BLM wishes to consider further and address in a revised decision.” There’s no word on when the BLM will finish “considering further.”

It looks like Mountain Juniper thinning project was a lot more about grazing, especially grazing cattle, than protecting Sage Grouse. Not really a surprise.

Of course, if you really wanted to protect the soil, and especially the biologically important soil crust that protects and nurtures desert ecosystems, you would ban cattle grazing to allow the trampled soil biota to recover. But the very idea is anathema in the cattle-made Great Basin. So one of the real threats to Sage Grouse will continue to go unaddressed.

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One thought on “Juniper Madness

  1. I have been on the ground before and after with many scientists and have seen the positive impact on sage grouse and other sage steppe denizens where proper juniper control has been implemented. I have seen less positive response where it was not done correctly. I have never found Western Watersheds very sage grouse friendly and far more obstructive than constructive. I take any information released by them with skepticism. Raptor perches on juniper is not a primary reason for controlling juniper for sage grouse. Biggest single benefit and immediate positive sage grouse response has been around wet meadows, in riparian areas etc. where junipers had or were colonizing areas previously populated by native grasses, shrubs and other plants. We used low impact masticators and the ground showed very little disturbance. We left “ancient” large juniper in place in their rocky perches. Wet meadows quickly expanded and helped hold water at the top of water sheds like a sponge and provided the forbs, insects and other plants important to sage grouse brood rearing. Junipers use and capture a huge amount of water that then dries or shrinks critical wet meadow habitat. It even shrinks the amount of water in streams used by Redband cutthroat. Fire is one of the best juniper control methods that used to be the normal but we humans disrupted that by fighting fires accidentally bringing in cheat grass and many more. When controlled burns were attempted the BLM and others were sued by misguided groups with an axe to grind. I have worked with The Nature Conservancy, Department of Lands, Trout Unlimited and more in Idaho to control invasive juniper. Mostly on private and state land and the response of sage grouse to improved wet meadow and riparian habitat was immediate. Unfortunately a warming climate is a big player in the whole ecosystem change and that alone is probably the biggest game changer in what we are used to in the sage steppe.

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