PRICE — Utah's sagebrush is in trouble. And because of it, so are thousands of Utah's deer.
Upward of 400,000 acres of critical winter range sagebrush along the entire eastern third of the state — from the Uinta Basin south to Bluff — may already be lost to drought, grazing, disease or old age. If it is, the deer that normally feed on that sagebrush during the winter will also be lost.
"We won't know for sure if we've lost the sagebrush until next spring," said Chris Colt, habitat program manager/wildlife biologist for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, as he looked over the gray and dying land. "The sagebrush looks dead. And, if you break one of the branches it's brittle, like it's dead.
"What we do know is that come winter, there will be no food for deer on critical winter range."
During the winter, sagebrush is a mule deer's staple diet.
Normally, the sagebrush-covered plateaus this time of year would be a sea of light-green leaves and a source of a tart, wild fragrance. But the only smell is the annoying presence of dust picked up by the wind.
Whatever happens to the sagebrush could be a death sentence for the deer in either case.
A severe winter, which could bring enough moisture to revive the sagebrush, could kill off the deer. Another mild winter could mean insufficient moisture and the certain loss of sagebrush, starvation for the deer and a possible invasion of noxious weeds.
Wildlife managers face this dilemma: Do they call for a higher harvest, in anticipation of a harsh winter — to lessen use on what limited food is available and save as many deer as possible from starvation. Or stay with the present program and let nature run her course, and if starvation is in the cards, so be it.
Alan Clark, wildlife section chief for the DWR, said management objectives are so low in the Southeastern Region that a higher harvest may not be necessary, but deer numbers are higher in the Northeastern Region, and issuing more permits for the fall hunt may be necessary.
And feeding deer is not possible in the two regions. The discovery of chronic wasting disease in both the Southeastern and Northeastern regions (so far one deer in each region) eliminates that option. Feeding would bring large numbers of deer together, increasing the risk of spreading the disease.
"No question," said Clark, "this is one of the toughest situations I've faced in the wildlife arena."
This is the first time wildlife officers have seen such huge losses of winter range.
The drought, obviously, has played a part in the current conditions of sagebrush. The plants have been under drought stress for five years. Also, some of the older sagebrush may have outlived its growing capabilities.
Then, starting as early as January, there was a huge infestation of army cutworms. Millions of the little worms attached themselves to and dined on sagebrush, contributing to the range problem.
They are called army cutworm, said Clark Israelsen, Utah State Extension Division in Cache County, because when they do show up, they "come as an army of worms — in large numbers. And because they showed up this year doesn't always mean they'll show up next year."
While sagebrush isn't their preferred food, they'll eat anything, he added.
Utah farmers had a serious problem with cutworms in alfalfa fields last year. Although the cutworms can be controlled with pesticides, spraying can be an expensive and environmentally unfriendly option.
If the sagebrush is dead and does not come back, the only option is to reseed. But even here, wildlife managers face huge hurdles. For best results, the seeds should be spread and then turned under the earth by dragging a huge chain over the land. Chaining, however, had become a target of environmentalists.
Also, reseeding is expensive — $35 an acre. To reseed 400,000 acres would cost around $14 million, with no guarantees.
"Even when you plant for sagebrush you're not always sure it will take. I can show you one little area where the sage is doing well. Why in that spot I don't know. Large areas we planted at the same time, however, did not take at all. Not a single plant grew," said Colt.
Sagebrush, too, is a very slow-growing plant. Six-year-old plants are only 10 to 12 inches tall. Some say it takes 20 years for sagebrush to mature.
Then, of course, if the sagebrush is dead, there is great concern over what plants will move in to replace it.
"In some areas, cheat grass has moved in and is causing us some real problems. It keeps other native species from getting established and even competes with sagebrush for moisture," he pointed out. Large fields of cheat grass, which has no food value for wildlife, also increase the chance of fire.
This problem only exists on winter range. At higher elevations, where deeper snow kept grazing deer and cutworms away, the sagebrush is lush and green.
Here again, during a mild winter deer can graze at the higher elevations, but during a heavy snow year they are confined to the lower winter range, where this winter the sagebrush will offer very few meals.