The plight of aspen groves
As discussed in a recent article in The Aspen Times, locally, aspen groves are struggling. But aspen is not only struggling locally; aspen groves are struggling across Colorado.
Paul Rogers, director of Western Aspen Alliance, identified a combination of anthropogenic habitat alterations that are impacting aspen groves including overabundant deer and elk population which selectively forage on young aspen shoots — the same shoots that would otherwise replace aging and dying trees thereby regenerate aspen forests.
Across the West, aspen groves are threatened by numerous anthropogenic impacts, but especially by an interaction between climate warming and unchecked herbivory from both large ungulates and livestock.
As Rogers suggests, reintroducing gray wolves could help restore aspen groves by keeping elk and deer moving, so that they don’t eat all the young aspen shoots.
Decades of reliable science documents that gray wolves, if present for long enough and with sufficient numbers and distribution, can initiate the restoration of healthy aspen woodlands — primarily by keeping elk and deer on the move, thereby preventing them from over-browsing their food resource.
Along with the restoration of aspen woodlands comes the restoration of a diversity of native wildlife that depend on these habitats — songbirds and raptors, and small mammals such as voles that are an important food for pine marten.
Cattle also like to linger in aspen groves and browse young aspen shoots — often to desuetude. Implementation of livestock-carnivore coexistence strategies can help resolve conflicts between livestock and aspen and between livestock and wolves. One such strategy, range riders, both keep livestock moving, which prevents vegetation over-browsing and enables vegetation recovery, and can prevent carnivore depredations on livestock.
Coloradans have an opportunity to restore aspen groves by restoring a natural balance. In 2020 vote yes on Initiative 107 — Colorado’s Restore Gray Wolf Population Initiative.
Delia G Malone
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