THE SPINE OF THE CONTINENT: THE MOST AMBITIOUS WILDLIFE CONSERVATION PROJECT EVER UNDERTAKEN by Mary Ellen Hannibal. Copyright © 2012 by Lyons Press, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press. Reprinted by permission." data-pin-do="buttonBookmark">
THE SPINE OF THE CONTINENT: THE MOST AMBITIOUS WILDLIFE CONSERVATION PROJECT EVER UNDERTAKEN by Mary Ellen Hannibal. Copyright © 2012 by Lyons Press, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press. Reprinted by permission. Image: Globe Pequot Press
Excerpted from The Spine of the Continent: The Most Ambitious Wildlife Conservation Project Ever Undertaken, by Mary Ellen Hannibal. Copyright © 2012, by Lyons Press, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press. Reprinted by permission.
One five-star general in the campaign to save nature is Dr. Mary O’Brien, and she has a thing for beaver, the championing of which she has completely converted me to. In the first place, the quest for beaver has arguably had more impact on American history than the pursuit of any other single natural resource, its influence lasting well over 200 years. Sixty million or so beaver populated North America before 1600, and had a huge effect on the hydrology of the landscape – beaver dams stored water, slowed its flow and rate of evaporation, slowed erosion and supported a wealth of fish and bird species. In fact, the extermination of beaver from North America arguably marks the point at which our landscapes began to buckle and slide down the ruinous course we find them on now. Especially in the West, where water has always been an enormous issue and will become more important as climate change affects it, there is a real imperative to put beaver back on the waterways.
As Utah Forests project manager for the Grand Canyon Trust, O’Brien directs the Three Forests Coalition, which puts her in charge of stewardship issues around the Dixie, the Fishlake, and the Manti–La Sal National Forests of southern Utah. These forests are at the core of the magnificent Colorado Plateau. The Trust would like to restore the area with native plants and thereby restabilize the soil; provide sage grouse with the cover of tall grasses and provide pollinators with flowers; protect cottonwood, aspen, and willow from overbrowsing by cattle, elk, and deer; and restore beaver to the waterways.
In October 2010 I joined O’Brien and a cadre of volunteers to assess various swaths of the Fishlake, to measure the presence and health of aspen and willow trees alongside several creeks that run through it. “These locations all had active beaver sites on them, so we want to see what kinds of conditions they’re dealing with—where they’re choosing to go. We’re measuring how close aspen is, how dense it is, how many old remnants are extant. Same with willow.” (There is not much cottonwood in the area.) “I want to go where there is beaver, because if that habitat is similar, it’s pretty clear you can reintroduce them to those other sites and have success.”
The twelve or so volunteers for this trip, who have come from all over the country, convene in a little town called Loa, from where we caravan to the spot where we will camp for five nights. O’Brien has us all pull over to observe a forest of aspen that stretches as far as the eye can see. “This is the Pando Clone,” O’Brien says. “It may be the largest living organism in the world, though a giant fungus in eastern Oregon might be bigger.” Pando is Latin for “I spread,” and a declarative statement has rarely been so emphatically evidenced. Not all aspen grow this way, but the Pando has extended its girth by sending underground shoots out from one original seed, which have sprouted to become over 40,000 genetically identical stems that we see as trees. “Look at the size and height of Pando’s trunks,” she says. “They’re all about the same. It’s like you’ve walked into a village where there are only very old people, nobody middle-aged, nobody young.” She points out signs of stress on nearby trunks, splotches of disease, bark splitting into ugly cankers. “Pando is dying,” she says. The aspen are all the same age here because rampant deer, elk and cattle chew the new sprouts to the ground before they can mature.