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Tree Removal Project Benefits watershed, wildlife, and livestock

12/01/2004 - While many people will be cutting their own Christmas trees this holiday season, biologists with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department are working to remove about 5,000 acres of conifer trees south of Casper, but for a different reason.

"We're doing this for watershed health," said Habitat Biologist Keith Schoup. "A healthy watershed benefits wildlife and livestock."

The Bates Creek Watershed Restoration Project is taking place on private and public lands 20 miles south of Casper. Schoup said the goal of the project is to encourage the growth of aspen trees and to prevent conifers from becoming the dominant species in the watershed. "Aspen provides better habitat for wildlife, increase grazing opportunities for livestock, and improve overall health of the watershed," he said.

Conifer trees are moving into the area through a process called succession, which is the natural transformation from one forest community to another over time.

"Aspen are being removed from the landscape and are being replaced by conifer trees," Schoup said. Such changes often alter an ecosystem to the point where it does not support healthy and diverse populations of wildlife. In addition, conifers use more water than aspen, which leaves the watershed in poor condition. "It's really drying the area out," Schoup said.

He said a healthy watershed benefits humans as well as wildlife. "These improvements can affect headwaters, springs and streams. More water in a watershed is better for everyone."

Schoup said removal of fire from the ecosystem has changed the dynamics of the forest and allowed the conifers to thrive. But by setting back succession, biologists hope to allow the growth of new aspen trees and improve hydrological function within the watershed. Prescribed burns will also be conducted in order to aid the project as well as reduce the amount of forest litter created by removal of the trees. The first burn is planned for the spring of 2005.

Historically, the watershed supported populations of beavers, and there is still evidence of old homesteads in the area. Proof, Schoup said, that it was once a vibrant, healthy forest community. "We would like to see beaver return to this area," he said. Aspen trees provide an excellent food source for beavers, as well as providing essential needs for a variety of other wildlife species.

The project is being coordinated with Miles Land and Livestock, Co., Wyoming State Forestry, U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and representatives from the Mule Deer Foundation and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The goal is to treat 5,000 acres over a 16-year period.

"But funding will determine how much is actually done," Schoup said. Contributions from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Mule Deer Foundation, the Wyoming Governor's Big Game License Coalition, Bowhunters of Wyoming and the Game and Fish Department Trust Fund have made it possible for treatment of about 180 acres to date, at a cost of $42,217. "These groups were instrumental in getting the project implemented," he said.

However, future funding for the project is uncertain. "If we don't have the funding, obviously we can't do it," Schoup said. And at a minimum cost of $235 per acre, funds are quickly depleted.

The Game and Fish Department will reapply to the sponsoring agencies and other groups that might be interested in supporting the project. Schoup hopes he can find enough support to see the project through to completion.

"It's a do-or-die situation," he said. "If there are no funds, there will be no project."

For more information about the Bates Creek Watershed Restoration project, contact the Wyoming Game and Fish Department at (307) 473-3409.

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