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Editorial

Game & Fish


Watershed Health



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06/01/2008 - Healthy watersheds are the key component of wildlife habitat. Unfortunately, many watersheds throughout the West are not as healthy as they could be and, as a result, habitat quality is diminished. So the Wyoming Game and Fish Department is working to improve the health of watersheds by actively managing forest ecosystems at levels that provide more diversity by keeping more water on the surrounding landscape.

A watershed is an area of land, such as a mountain or valley, which collects snowmelt and rainwater into a common outlet. Water from surrounding land drains into tributaries and tributaries flow into the river. This forms a watershed. healthy watershed acts a bit like a sponge, soaking up snowmelt and precipitation into its soil and then slowly releasing it, thus delivering a consistent and dependable source of water for eventual use by the forest, wildlife, and humans. 

The health of a watershed is determined by the health of the landscape contained therein. Features of healthy landscapes include the ability to capture and store precipitation for safe, slow release to streams, having a diversity of plant species to provide good ground cover and help water infiltration, and recharging groundwater aquifers providing high quality water to the rest of the watershed.

Certain forest communities, such as stands of aspen trees, can contribute to the health of a watershed. Aspen stands accumulate snow in the form of drifts that melt slowly, releasing a steady source of water into the watershed. They also help stabilize soil after a disturbance and enrich the soil with nutrients such as phosphorous, potash and calcium. This process enhances the health of many other plant species in the greater ecosystem, and ultimately, the watershed.

Ecological succession is the natural transformation of one forest community to another over time. As aspen trees age and die, conifer trees move in. Conifers suck up large quantities of water and offer less overall benefit for wildlife. Recharge of water into surrounding watershedsc and aquifers is low in a coniferous forest and there is generally little to no late-summer stream flows. When rains come these forests also produce more sediment in streams due to the lack of vegetative ground cover, which helps hold the soils in place. As a result, streams can erode and flood more often, water quality may decline, treatment costs may rise, and fish communities may collapse.

Historically, natural occurrences such as forest fires and other disturbances allow new plant species to move in and provide forage for wildlife. These early-succession plants include aspen trees and ground-cover plants such as sedges and grasses that are associated with aspen communities.

In historic times wildfires frequently swept through Western landscapes, reestablishing vegetation and setting succession into motion. But our modern world has come into conflict with fire. Many people think of forest fires only as a tragic and destructive force, and our society has suppressed fire for more than a century in the West. Unfortunately, fire suppression has favored late-successional vegetation such as conifer forests, causing the loss of habitat diversity, the decline of watershed health, and ultimately threatening some wildlife resources. Succession involves the whole community, not just the plants. As plant communities change, so will the associated animal species.

Each species is adapted to thrive and compete best against other species under a very specific set of environmental conditions. If these conditions change, then the existing species will be replaced by a new set of species, which are better adapted to the new conditions.

The good news is that by mimicking wildfire and other natural disturbances, wildlife managers can restore health to surrounding watersheds and create better habitat for wildlife.

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