SHERIDAN — The Wyoming State Forestry Division, in conjunction with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department will begin an aspen preservation project along U.S. Highway 14 this winter.
District forester Kelly Norris talked about the project during an aspen ecology and management presentation Tuesday at the Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library.
“All we’re trying to do is get aspen to reestablish or continue to keep the aspen we have,” Norris said.
She said as aspen comes up from Tongue River Canyon, so does conifer encroachment. During the first phase of the project, Wyoming State Forestry Division staff will conduct mechanized harvesting of conifers that are adjacent to aspen stands. Norris said they will harvest and retain merchantable stands.
During the second phase, WGFD employees will follow in these areas, taking out the rest of the conifer within the aspen, whether it is merchantable or not.
“What we’re trying to do is get the aspen to continue to be the habitat because it comes up out of that drainage, and since that, we’ve had a lot of conifer encroachment in there,” Norris said.
Norris said they’re planning to start the first phase around November and she hopes to be done by February. She said the hope is that WGFD will be able to follow right around snow melt and be done before hunting season begins next year.
Norris said the state forestry staff won’t harvest aspen or limber pine, as limber pine is another species struggling in the Bighorn Mountains. She said some trees that will get harvested include the subalpine fir and spruce, along with the conifer trees.
“It’s going to drastically look a little different up there,” Norris said.
While Norris acknowledged that the project may not be popular with everyone, she said it will allow more sunlight in the area, which she hopes will help the aspen spread.
“We’re cutting some pretty large trees in their viewscape,” Norris said. “…But my hope is they’re going to have aspen roll into that space because they’re really shading out a lot of the aspens.”
WGFD northeast Wyoming terrestrial habitat biologist Todd Caltrider said aspen is essential to wildlife, including big game like deer, elk and moose. He said less than 1 percent of the Bighorn National Forest is aspen, which is the second most diverse habitat, following only riparian areas.
“With only 1 percent of the forest being aspen, these areas are highly sought out,” Caltrider said.
Additionally, Western Aspen Alliance director Paul C. Rogers said aspen is valuable because of its water retention, fire protection and high real estate value.
A similar project was started in the Billy Creek area of the Bighorn Mountains in 2012. Norris said they’ve seen great success with the Billy Creek project, which yielded aspen growth, and they’re hoping for a similar outcome in the U.S. Highway 14 area.