Owyhee Conservation District’s Annual Summer Tour

The Owyhee Conservation District hosted its Annual Summer Tour on June 13, 2012 with a day trip to the Owyhee Mountains. This year the board voted to see a Juniper Mastication project. The tour began after our monthly board meeting with a group of eleven people meeting at 9:00am, and reaching the site at about 11:30am. The drive was long but beautiful, filled with a variety of animals including chipmunks, rock chucks, rabbits, squirrels, quail, deer, antelope, turkey vultures, and numerous birds.

In March 2010, the USDA NRCS launched the Sage-Grouse Initiative. The goal of the initiative is to implement conservation practices with private landowners to improve the Sage grouse populations and habitat in an effort to curtail the possibility of an Endangered Species Act listing. Idaho is one of eleven states participating in the initiative. USDA deemed healthy Sage grouse habitat as large, intact landscapes with plant diversity, perennial grasses and forbs, invasive species management, healthy springs and seeps and well-designed grazing plans. A negative for both the Sage grouse and rancher is conifer encroachment. Hence the mastication project between Jordan Valley ranchers Dennis and Mike Stanford and mastication contractor Dave Bunker of Branch Enterprises. They are taking on the enormous task of Juniper mastication on over 400 acres. In partnership, NRCS Soil Conservation Technician Diane French has worked closely with Dennis, Mike, and Dave to help insure a successful project.

Dave Bunker and Mike Stanford explained the Sage grouse Initiative project and the reason for Juniper removal or mastication. The Juniper has significantly encroached over the past 50 -75 years throughout Owyhee County. Stands of Juniper readily uptake critical water resources from the Great Basin landscape, depleting water from seeps, meadows, springs, and streams that Sage grouse, livestock, and other wildlife are dependent on. In addition, vast areas of Juniper encroachment have changed the Sagebrush habitat ecosystem that houses the vital forbs, grasses, and sagebrush structures necessary for Sage grouse survival. Removing and reducing Juniper from areas that were historically wet seeps, meadows or riparian areas quickly improves both habitat and grazing by allowing native forbs and grasses to return to a more productive state.

Dave’s nephew Greg works as an equipment operator and demonstrated the use of the track hoe style masticator machine. I likened it to a 400lb weed whacker with huge steel blades. The disc that holds the blades spins while the track hoe crane lifts the blade. Starting at the middle of a large Juniper tree the masticator tops the tree then progressively works its way down making a pulpy base. The goal is to leave small areas of habitat for small birds and animals, restore open landscapes, and regain valuable water resources.

It certainly was a fascinating process to watch. Many thanks to Dave Bunker, Mike Stanford, and Diane French for the demonstration tour and information on Sage grouse, and to Julie Phelps, Tate Walters and Rick Smith for driving.

This article was written by Gina Millard with the Owyhee Conservation District.

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