It’s no secret that a big draw for Jackson County is tourism, specifically to the forests and parks. People come from all over to see the diversity in species the forests offer, but some of that is in danger.
Invasive species are a problem for just about every county forest and parks department and Jackson County is no exception.
Donald Houser, the Jackson County Forestry and Parks forest technician, said they are battling mainly buckthorn and phragmites.
The problem with invasive species, he said, is that they tend to take over an area and choke out other diversity.
“These plants create monocultures which is a stand of a single plant and these plants are non-native and out-compete native plants,” Houser said.
As the forests lose plants that animals might feed on, those animals leave and as a result hunters or birdwatchers come to Jackson County less because the animals aren’t here and the problem cascades.
It’s not an easy thing to solve though, the department can’t go out and rip out buckthorn and call it a day.
Buckthorn grows tall, thick and seemingly everywhere, even in the shade and under other trees.
It started as a cultivated plant that escaped into the wild and spread.
The difficulty in keeping ahead of a plant like buckthorn is that its seeds are spread by birds and other animals making it hard to track, and it drops so many seeds that even if they rip out some buckthorn, there’s a thick bed of seeds waiting below.
Phragmites is a bit easier in that it usually grows near water, giving Houser a better idea of where it will be, but it presents problems.
It made its way into the county as part of reclamation projects from mines, but has since spread further than expected.
The stalks of phragmites can grow fairly tall and growing in water makes treating them a bit harder, especially since there’s only a small window when treating them works.
“There’s a two-week period when the leaves are creating sugar and taking it into the roots so that’s when we have to spray them so the chemical gets into the roots,” Houser said.
With only two people working on fighting invasive species in the Jackson County Forestry and Parks Department, the job is difficult for the county, which relies on grants to fund these efforts to cover 121,000 acres.
“If we didn’t have the grants we wouldn’t have the money to treat this,” Houser said.
Recently they received a $10,300 grant from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and a $5,000 grant from Fish and Wildlife Services.
These grants make sure the department has chemicals and equipment to take care of buckthorn and phragmites.
The department uses backpack sprayers, helicopters and ATV mounted equipment, but sometimes they will also call in a crew that takes care of these invasive species after timber is cut.
Mainly they are trying to fight off the leading edge of these invasive species and keep it from expanding further to give them a starting line to battle it back.
They receive help from nature, including from beavers.
“So the beavers being here actually help raise the water level and with the deep water the phragmites seeds can’t survive,” Houser said. “It’s kinda cool to see nature working with us like that.”
While that certainly helps their efforts, it still leaves the Forestry and Parks Department with a lot of ground to cover for only two people.
Creating wildlife openings
When the department stops fighting invasive species, there are also several efforts to create wildlife openings to help improve the forest ecosystem.
“Wildlife openings can really benefit a lot of different species that we have,” DNR biologist Scott Roepke said.
A wildlife opening is as simple as it sounds, an opening in the wooded areas that is a bit more spacious.
These spots provide food, bedding for elk and deer and ground birds frequent these areas for cover.
“The openings provide different food resources that aren’t necessarily readily available in the forest,” Roepke said.
Some of the openings in the forest are natural, but Houser said that’s less than one percent of the area available so the department has taken it into their own hands.
A few man-made wildlife openings have already been started or are in the process of being made to help attract more animals to the area.
Houser said that what typically grows in the area isn’t that nutritious for animals, which means they won’t stay as long so they plant cool season grasses and other vegetation like clover that is more appealing.
The clearings are specifically picked based on location, then plans are made to sell the timber on the land and then soil tests are completed along with some planting and clearing to get them ready.
It’s not just the animals who enjoy having the open space, but hunters as well since it attracts a lot of game animals.
Upkeep on the areas can from vary from opening to opening as Roepke said, some essentially manage themselves and others are a bit more intensive.