The biggest living thing on earth is to be bitten to death. Can it be saved?

“Imagine you entered a city of 50,000 people and everyone was 85 years old,” he says. “That’s kind of a problem with Pando.”

The forest is getting old. But the next generation does not survive. “And it’s happening in front of us,” Rogers says.

Bando problem

Pando is a bit of a mystery. Beginning a mile east of Mallard Bay, on Fish Lake in the Utah Fish Lake National Forest, 440 stems per acre—about one every 10 feet on average—spread over tens of thousands of yards of volcanic rock, interspersed with boulders, some the size of cars. How did this monster become so big? Nobody really knows. But the fact that, and that poplar is so common in the northern hemisphere, suggests that there may be even larger cloned orchards waiting to be discovered.

Rogers spent many hours in Pando’s control. He wrote poetry about her, and he felt his smallness under his enormity. Her calmness moves him in ways he can’t quite express.

The platform was brought to the world’s attention by a University of Michigan scientist named Burton Barnes. In the mid-1970s, he walked through it and compared leaves on neighboring trees, using them to distinguish stems emerging from a single root system from nearby unrelated trees. Decades later, other scientists took DNA samples from 209 stems across Pando. They showed that Barnes was right. This gigantic stand of poplar was a single plant.

It has been known for some time that Pando suffers from some health problems. In the late 1980s, as part of an experiment, the US Forest Service cleared two small patches. Nothing grew again. In 1992, they cut down another area and fenced it off. This part of Pando is now a very dense stand of trees about five inches in diameter, all about 35 feet high.

How could that happen? If you cut, kill, burn, or scar the aspen, their response is to have new babies. Stanley Kitchen, an emeritus research scientist with the Forest Service, has seen aspen orchards sprouting at 3,500 rounds per acre—”so many that it’s like walking in a cornfield.” Fertility is not the problem.

In 2018, researchers finally clearly diagnosed Bando’s pain. On 65 observation plots, Rogers and a colleague tracked dead and live trees, stem regrowth, shrub cover, and mule deer faeces. The strongest predictor of forest health was regeneration, and the presence of deer corresponded to poor regeneration.

From August to October, when the flowers and other plants are drying up, mule deer graze and browse in Bando, where they fill up with protein in the fall. Around the same time, ranchers with permits to graze cows pass through nearby forest units for about two weeks a year. All those animals meet in Pando buds, and cut them down before they become trees.

possible solution

But the problem is simpler than its solutions. Deer and elk are managed by the state, which is under pressure to keep their hunting numbers high. But hunting is not allowed near Pando. It is a popular recreational area for tourists. There are even a few cabins. Animals know they are safe. They have learned over decades to gather here.

Rogers heard all the suggestions: use fireworks, shoot deer with blanks, or chase them with all-terrain vehicles. These ideas are not considered practical. Changing grazing patterns in forests created for “multiple uses” is also not easy. Some ranchers have been raising livestock here for generations.

There may be funds available to do a large-scale fencing from a private donor, but someone will also have to maintain it. And Rogers asks, do we really want this iconic thing to be gated like in a zoo? “That doesn’t address the root of the problem,” he says.

As it is, the parts of Pando that are not fenced off for research are already developing along a different ecological path, with different sub-vegetation emerging where trees do not grow again. Rogers thinks that may be because fewer adult trees are letting in more light. Dividing the Pando into fenced and open areas, Rogers says, “pushes the most uniform forests of their kind known in the world in a new direction.”

But in another community on a nearby mountain, Kitchen, at least, sees cause for optimism. There, surfing elk and cows, along with decades of putting out bushfires, allowed spruce and trees to begin taking over the aspen stalls. Kitchen and others within the Forest Service collaborated with hunters, environmentalists, ranchers, state officials, and landowners. In 2015, a new 10-year plan to save the aspen on that mountain emerged, with support from all sides. It included more hunting for deer and elk if the problem of feeding them on the shoots persisted.

Kitchen admits he didn’t solve all the problems, but it seems to be making a difference. Aspens are active.

Rogers endorses attempting such an operation in Pando – along with the immediate culling of a handful of deer accustomed to the area and some changes in grazing. One way or another, he says, “we need to stop the bleeding.”

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