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Critical rangeland being restored

Habitat Initiative Program would help restore areas of sagebrush like this that have been hit hard by drought.
Habitat Initiative Program would help restore areas of sagebrush like this that have been hit hard by drought.
Ray Grass, Deseret Morning News

The single most important key to increasing Utah's deer numbers is habitat.

It is an element in the rebuilding of deer numbers that has long been recognized but is only now gaining support needed to significantly improve range conditions.

This year, said John Fairchild, habitat coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, work is being done to restore more than 30,000 acres of critical rangeland.

"In the past, we've been able to do, maybe, 10,000 to 15,000 acres a year. It's a pretty big undertaking to do twice that the first year. We expect to be doing 40,000 to 50,000 acres a year pretty soon," he said.

The push behind the restoration is the Habitat Initiative Program introduced by the late DWR director, Kevin Conway. It is considered one of the more far-reaching habitat programs in the country and is expected to be a model for other states to follow.

What the initiative has done is bring a number of groups and government agencies together to work cooperatively on restoring habitat.

Some of the funding, for example, is coming from the Bureau of Land Management's and U.S. Forest Service's programs to reduce fuels, mainly dense vegetation, that can lead to catastrophic fires.

By reducing the fuel load, he explained, "We can go back and improve habitat for things like big game animals and sage grouse."

Most of the restoration work is being done in the northeastern and southern regions, which were hit hard by years of severe drought conditions. More than 600,000 acres of critical winter sagebrush areas was lost.

"We can't do it all at once, but we can focus on those areas that provide critical habitat for some of the species we manage for," he said.

What is involved in the restoration program is the thinning and/or removal of old growth and the re-planting of new vegetation.

"We need to get rid of the old sagebrush in order to get the understory of grasses and forbs established and manage for sagebrush stands that are more in balance with grasses and forbs.

"A lot of the stands of sagebrush we have are old and dying, decadent shrubs that won't support much of anything. They simply occupy a site. They do not have the seedlings to replace the old sagebrush and are highly vulnerable to catastrophic fires."

To restore land takes time and money — lots of it.

And, what makes this program work is that these projects are not being funded by a single agency but by several, such as the BLM, Forest Service and the DWR, as well as private groups like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Sportsmen for Habitat and even private individuals and landowners.

The newly opened DWR seed station in Ephraim has also been important to the restoration program. Not only can the new facility hold more seed but does so under conditions that ensure growth.

The land recovery program will take years to complete, but as Fairchild pointed out, "We have a plan, and it's working."