Agency Aims to Improve Habitat for Sheep

In a state known as the least-forested in the nation, the U.S. Forest Service wants to fell hundreds of juniper trees in North Dakota's Badlands to improve the habitat for transplanted bighorn sheep.

BISMARCK, N.D. -- In a state known as the least-forested in the nation, the U.S. Forest Service wants to fell hundreds of juniper trees in North Dakota's Badlands to improve the habitat for transplanted bighorn sheep.

Biologists believe bighorn sheep need clear areas to protect their young from lurking predators. Area ranchers say earlier efforts to thin junipers from the Badlands have been a waste of taxpayers' money, and they have refused access to their land, forcing state foresters to haul equipment farther.

"I don't believe in them cutting down trees and I'm not going to make it any easier for them to do it," said Medora rancher Harold Hugelen, who along with his rancher neighbors has denied access to a state tree-thinning project the past two years. "If they want to do it, they have got to work for it."

Hugelen does not believe in reintroducing bighorns in the Badlands. Biologists say the bighorns are native to the state, but were wiped out by 1905 because of over-hunting and disease.

"I don't think we should change habitat for wildlife -- if they can't survive, they can't survive," Hugelen said. "The next thing they'll want to do is level the Badlands because the hills will be too steep for the sheep."

About 200 juniper trees on state school land near Medora were cleared the past two years to open up lambing grounds for bighorn sheep along the Little Missouri River, said Brett Wiedmann, a biologist with the state Game and Fish Department.

Forest Service biologist Jeff Ingalls said the federal agency wants to begin cutting several hundred junipers this summer from a 100-acre parcel in the Little Missouri Grasslands in western North Dakota, about 30 miles south of Watford City.

Ingalls said the trees would be cleared with chain saws and controlled burns. He said the project could take a few years "depending on funding and manpower."

Dave Pieper, a Forest Service supervisor in Bismarck, said the federal tree-thinning project would cost between $3,000 and $10,000, "depending on if we burn it or treat it mechanically (with chain saws)."

The Forest Service is taking public comment on its proposal until June 14. Ingalls said he expects little opposition, since the federal agency owns all the land surrounding the site and will not face the opposition to access that the state encountered earlier.

"The whole area is just choked out with junipers," Wiedmann said.

North Dakota has about 300 bighorn sheep -- mostly in the Badlands in the western part of the state. Wiedmann said the animals were reintroduced in North Dakota in 1956 and have rebounded in recent years, after the die-off of about 150 bighorns in 1998.

Bighorn lambs are vulnerable to coyotes and mountain lions that hide in trees, Wiedmann said.

"In the junipers, they can just sneak up on the lambs," he said. "All we are trying to do is get a little balance back to the Badlands, and at least give the bighorns a fighting chance."

North Dakota is not known for trees.

"North Dakota is, in fact, the least forested state in the nation," Pieper said. "Less than 1 percent of our land base is made up of forest."

But trees aren't always beneficial to wildlife, Wiedmann said.

"In North Dakota, we're so ingrained that trees are good and planting trees is good -- and that trees equal wildlife habitat," Wiedmann said. "But there are a lot of misconceptions of the role trees have on habitat."

Wiedmann said culling the junipers in the Badlands would benefit the entire ecosystem.

"When you remove junipers, everything -- grass lands, forage and wildlife benefit," he said.

"A single juniper tree sucks up a lot of water, about 50 gallons a day," Wiedmann said. "The trees also cause 25 times more erosion, because there are no grasses under the trees and (soil) washes away."

The state land that was thinned of junipers that past two years has seen an increased number of lambs, Wiedmann said.

There were no lambs in the area in 2004, before the trees were thinned, he said. Seven lambs have been spotted there after the tree-thinning he said.

Hugelen, who lives less than a mile from where the trees were cleared on state land the past two years, said coyotes don't need trees to hide behind, and he has not seen any of the bighorns that biologists are talking about.

"I haven't seen any on that hill," he said. "They always hung around in that area when the trees were there -- I think they disturbed them too much when they cut trees down, and I don't think they want to come back."

Source: Associated Press

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