Pando and Beetles

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What’s the world’s largest living organism? A whale? An Elephant? Nope, it’s an aspen clone in central Utah that covers just over 100 acres. The thing has a name, too: Pando, which is Latin for ‘I spread’.  Do you have an aspen in your yard? You know they are pretty trees but really annoying ones because they send out shoots from their roots and make your yard look like you don’t keep up with the weeds. According to the USDA Forest Service, an aspen reproduces by sending out shoots from its roots that grow into ‘many genetically identical trees, resulting in a clone.’               

Sadly, Pando is dying as the older trees are reaching the end of their 150-year life, and it may be losing its first place ribbon in biology to a fungus in Oregon. This decline in size is natural but scientists and ecologists are warning that there are very few younger trees emerging in Pando to replace the older ones. Some say it’s the mule deer eating the young, nutritious aspen sprouts. When the old trees die, they lose leaves and leaves are needed for photosynthesis. Without it, there’s no energy to produce new sprouts. We actually are helping ol’ Pando die, too, because the U.S. Forest Service doesn’t allow roads or hunting in the area. Thus, the hungry deer have found a sweet refuge full of yummy sprouts. They have been trying to put up fences to keep the deer out, but the animals jump high and figure out how to get around. If we killed off these deer and kept killing them, Pando might have a chance.             

Near Pando, in the Manti-La Sal National Forest, there’s been a massive death of trees. In the last two decades bark beetles have killed off almost ALL of the spruce trees in a huge area of the mountains above Mt. Pleasant to south of Ephraim. The Forest Service is about to embark on one of the largest logging projects in modern history to get that dead wood out of there and replant with conifer seedlings and planning better space in the forest. The wood will be used to build log homes, chopped to size for firewood/fireplaces and then chipped for bedding used by local turkey growers.  The USDA reported in 2018 that Utah had an inventory of 2.9 million turkeys and 815,000 pullets (baby turkeys).             

It’s warm outside now and we all love to head up to the mountains to hike and bike or simply enjoy the views. When you’re in forested areas you can see the dead trees almost everywhere now. Scientists tell us that bark beetles are on the rise due to climate change. What’s super scary about their never-ending destruction is that forests of dead trees are fodder for wildfires. Remember last falls fires in the Western half of our country? Given the massive rains we’ve had this year the underbrush is double, no, triple the normal size we usually get. Those grasses and brush will dry out and we could be headed for another bad fire season fueled again by massive acres of dead trees. As Smokey the Bear says, “Please be careful!" when you’re out in our forests this summer and don’t help start a fire.