The objective of this project is to improve habitat by removing smaller age classes of selected conifers (primarily ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir, and juniper), and diseased, dead, or over-represented limber pine from curl-leaf mahogany communities that occur within crucial mule deer winter ranges in the southern Bighorn Mountains. The goals of the project are to increase the mule deer population and stabilize the elk population.
“The beauty of this type of treatment is that you see immediate beneficial results as the conifers are removed from the mahogany stands.” said Fire Ecologist Jennifer Walker.
Mule deer populations are in decline in the area, and generally across the state and west. Selected conifer species are encroaching into mahogany stands in these areas, and they will eventually out-compete mahogany plants, which are important for mule deer survival in the region. In a study performed by WGFD in 1997 (Jellison et al 1997), mahogany was shown to comprise up to 75 percent of the area mule deer diet during the winter months. The added benefit is to reduce competition between mule deer and elk in shared crucial winter range.
Ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir, and junipers exhibit a faster rate of growth than mahogany, and as they mature and their canopy closure increases, they begin to overshadow and choke out mahogany. Most conifers lacking the natural control of fire out-compete mahogany, and likely contribute to reducing the mule deer carrying capacity in the region.
Wildfire is another persistent threat to mahogany stands in the project area. The 2006 Outlaw Cave wildfire burned 815 acres of mahogany in the project area which accounted for about eight percent of the mahogany on crucial winter ranges. The ever present fire threat demonstrates the need to maximize the quality and availability of habitat that remains.
“Removing selected conifers in proximity to mahogany stands will reduce the volume of standing fuels and serve as a means to buffer these shrub communities from potential wildfire by reducing fire intensity and frequency within the treatment areas,” said Walker.
Phase one of this project began within the Ed O Taylor Wildlife Management Area (WHMA) managed by WGFD and BLM’s Middle Fork Recreation Area during the summer and fall of 2011. In 2012, the project expanded to include Wyoming Office of State Lands and Investments as well as private landowner/cooperator lands adjacent to the Ed O Taylor WHMA for a total 2,009 acres of mahogany stands cleared of conifers. Phase two will include continued treatments within the Middle Fork Recreation Area expanding northward to include an additional 2,350 acres.
BLM and WGFD have jointly coordinated this effort collaborating with private landowners and conservation groups as well as completing the National Environmental Protection Act documents, surveying the treatment areas and providing contract oversight. WWNRT has supported this effort with funding in 2011-2014, MDF provided funding from 2011-2012, and RMEF provided funding in 2014.
“As this work continues and the treatment acres grow in the years to follow, these partnerships ensure the success of the project moving forward to conserve and enhance crucial big game habitat along the Southern Big Horn Mountains,” said Buffalo Field Manager Duane Spencer.