OUTBUD – Over 24 years, a unique Montana cooperative project has invested nearly $460,000 to boost regeneration of aspen stands along the Beartooth Face.
“We’ve kind of reached the point where we’ve done the aspen stands that were easiest to access and the cheapest to treat,” said Shawn Stewart, a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist based in Red Lodge.
The project started in 1990 after Forest Service mapping and aerial photos showed aspen stands had fallen from about 6,000 to 3,000 acres in 60 years.
“It’s safe to say the ruffed grouse took a hit, too,” Stewart said.
Aspen are an important species to ruffed grouse. Males use fallen logs to drum on to attract mates. Females typically nest close to the drumming sites. Chicks are raised in dense stands of aspen to avoid avian predators.
In winter, older stands of aspen produce buds that the birds feed on. In the spring, aspen catkins are a main food source. For these reasons, ruffed grouse are an indicator species for aspen health.
Lots of ruffed grouse means the aspen are doing well, while the opposite is also true.
“There are very few places that have ruffed grouse that don’t have aspen,” Stewart said.
Aspen stands can also feed elk, deer and moose. The trees’ fallen leaves nurture the soil for berry bushes and other understory. Insects also thrive in the ecological niche and provide food for other bird species.
The decline of aspen in Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge prompted the 2010 debut of controlled elk hunting seasons in a portion of the refuge. Research showed the herd had grown so large the elk were eating all the new plants and preventing the aspen from regenerating.
“In the Beartooths, lodgepole pine is not really productive from a wildlife standpoint,” Stewart said.
Barb Pittman, Beartooth Ranger District biologist, agreed. “Aspen is really a diverse community compared to the conifer we have in this landscape.”
With funding from the Ruffed Grouse Society, the Forest Service and FWP’s Upland Game Bird Enhancement Program, Stewart helped develop a strategy to cut some aspen stands. Aspen thrive in disturbance. Historically that came from wildland fires. But as the Forest Service got better at suppressing forest fires, conifers encroached on aspen stands and old aspen stands died out. Typically the trees live only about 100 years.
“Without fire, we have to make a conscious decision to maintain aspen in the environment,” Stewart said.
“Aspen is so responsive to treatments; you see a response in a relatively short amount of time,” Pittman said, noting that in three seasons one patch of cut trees had grown 6 to 8 feet tall.
Biologist promotes bats
OUTNIGHT – A wildlife biologist will present a free program, “Bats: Wonders of the Night, at 7 p.m. on Monday, at the Coeur d’Alene Public Library, 702 E. Front Ave.
Jenny Taylor plans to explain why bats are important to everyone, debunk bat myths and feature bats of North Idaho.
Taylor works with WREN, a Coeur d’Alene-based environmental education and conservation nonprofit organization.
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