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Improving Mule Deer Habitat, One Juniper at a Time

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Oregon ranchers partner with NRCS to improve winter range habitat

In Grant County, Oregon—like many communities across the West—juniper encroachment has created several challenges for natural resource managers.

One of those challenges is losing winter habitat for mule deer.

“Western juniper encroachment on forests and grazed rangelands is a major contributor to the loss of critical grasses, forbs, and shrubs that are important to mule deer,” said Aaron Roth, District Conservationist for Grant County with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

Winter Survival

Mule deer in this area typically migrate long distances to lower elevations to escape the snow or minimize snow cover. They need access to nutritious woody vegetation to help them survive the winter.

Historically, their winter diet on rangeland included shrubs like sagebrush and bitterbrush; native bunchgrasses in upland areas; and robust vegetation along stream banks with a high diversity of woody shrub species.

However, many of these habitats today have been highly impacted by encroaching juniper. In many cases, upland habitats have been largely or partially replaced by juniper and/or annual grasses. The spread of juniper is usually attributed to a lack of both natural and prescribed wildfire on the landscape that historically used to keep juniper populations in check.

The Impact of Juniper

Junipers are thirsty trees. The average Western juniper can consume up to 40 gallons of water a day from the ground. As junipers encroach onto a site, they will eventually dominate the existing plant community.

Junipers reduce the available ground moisture for more important understory vegetation like shrubs, grasses, and forbs.

But the impact extends beyond wildlife habitat. Juniper encroachment also leads to reduced plant diversity, increased potential for soil erosion by creating more bare ground, and reduced water infiltration.

To help address this problem, local ranchers in Prairie City and surrounding communities have teamed up with natural resource agencies to remove encroaching juniper before the grasses, shrubs, and forbs are lost.

NRCS and ODFW Working Together

In 2015, using Oregon NRCS’s Strategic Approach to Conservation business model, NRCS launched a new strategy called “Northside Mule Deer Winter Rangeland Habitat Improvement” in partnership with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW).

This strategy offered financial assistance to ranchers through NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to help them remove juniper in key locations.

The strategy targeted lands within the ODFW Northside Wildlife Management Unit (WMU). This area was identified in Oregon’s Mule Deer Initiative as a critical area for habitat improvements in foothills and wintering range, in response to declining populations of mule deer reported in the area.

The Grant Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) was also an active partner in assisting landowners with juniper removal.

The Northside WMU is approximately 1,118 square miles and includes 330,000 acres of critical winter habitat—of which 86 percent is privately owned.

With such a high percentage of private lands, farmers and ranchers have embraced a shared responsibility to provide habitat to mule deer during an extremely critical time period for the deer.

Conservation at Ricco Ranch

Pat and Hedy Voigt, owners and operators of Ricco Ranch in Prairie City, Oregon, are participating landowners in this project.

Hedy’s family founded the ranch during the Gold Rush era. They have a spring cow/calf operation with rangeland and timberland. They also operate a successful artificial insemination program.

Pat worked with NRCS and the Grant SWCD to remove juniper trees and thin forested ground on the property. He has cut about 700 acres of juniper over the last few years.

“The juniper removal is a good service for people,” Pat said. “We are doing something that naturally makes a difference on the land, but it’s something a rancher can’t afford on their own. NRCS works hard to help landowners in Grant County take advantage of programs like this; and they target strategic areas to make the most effective use of available funds.”

Pat has a long history of conservation. He served on the Grant SWCD Board of Directors for more than 20 years and has been involved in numerous conservation projects in the community.

Recharging Groundwater

Pat has noticed differences on his land after cutting juniper. On one site, he cut juniper around a spring that had gone dry. Within a year of cutting, he noticed groundwater running through the spring for the first time in many years!

Pat has also worked with NRCS to do some forest stand improvement practices on his forested ground.

“The goal was fire risk reduction, open spacing, and better deer habitat,” he said. “It’s nice to see the open forest, it’s like a park up here. I want max growth in timber and max growth in grass production. Thinning achieves both.”

Project Outcomes

The 4-year strategy wrapped up in 2019. NRCS entered into contracts with 63 private landowners to remove more than 8,000 acres of juniper and perform 7,000 acres of woody residue treatment.

The project also included 1,700 feet of fencing and conifer removal to protect and restore aspen stands. Aspen has critical habitat value for many different wildlife species including mule deer.

ODFW District Wildlife Biologist Ryan Torland echoed the importance of habitat conservation projects like this one.

“While the mule deer population has declined in the Northside Unit, this is largely due to habitat, but hard winters, disease causing low fawn recruitment, drought and predation are also contributing,” Torland said.

“Projects like this on the winter range are an important and necessary step to improve range conditions. Habitat improvement projects may take many years before the effects are seen in deer populations.”

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Story by Tracy Robillard
NRCS Oregon
Published December 2019