From elk to grouse to moose to woodpeckers, wildlife love aspen trees. Aspen stands encourage the growth of different types of grasses and shrubs that provide food and shelter for critters of all shapes and sizes. They have relatively short life spans of 80 to 120 years, but the root system of the colony can live up to thousands of years. However, there’s a problem. Aspens are becoming scarcer in the West. Some experts suggest aspen stands shrunk by 50 to 60 percent over the last 150 years because of disease, drought, overgrazing by wildlife and domestic animals, encroachment of coniferous forests and fire suppression.
And then there are weeds. Those obnoxious invasive plants like to bunch together to crowd out the good. That’s where the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation comes into play. RMEF is committed to killing the noxious “greenery” to clear the way for native grasses while also carrying out habitat enhancement projects that benefit the white-barked aspens. Both those efforts recently came together in northwest Montana. But to better appreciate it, you have to take a bit of a historical approach.
Back in 1998, RMEF retained a consultant to work with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) to carry out preliminary work that eventually led to a conservation agreement with Plum Creek Timber on private timber lands in the Thompson-Fisher drainages. The Trust for Public Land went on to complete the conservation easement between FWP and Plum Creek that permanently protected 142,000 acres from subdivision and development while opening the land to public access.
|2008 project site (pre-treatment on left, post-treatment on right)|
Fast forward to four years later when, in 2012, the fight continued. RMEF awarded Plum Creek with a $15,000 grant to chemically treated 220 miles of roads within intermingled Plum Creek and State lands within the conservation easement. Crews again went to work and also set up 22 different knapweed weevil biocontrol sites.
The fight is not over. It will continue. The project area remains in high use as big game winter range. RMEF will keep monitoring the aspens, work to keep knocking back the weeds, and do what is necessary to ensure the future of elk, other wildlife and their habitat.