“If this were a community of humans, it would be as if a whole town of 47,000 had only 85-year-olds in it,” says Paul Rogers, an ecologist at Utah State University and Director of the Western Aspen Alliance. “It’s been thriving for thousands of years, and now it’s coming apart on our watch. Where is the next generation?”
On 106 acres in Fishlake National Forest in Richfield, Utah, the Pando, an aspen “forest of one”, a 13-million-pound giant, thriving for thousands of years, is endangered in our Anthropocene, human dominated epoch. This “Trembling Giant,” a single clone, and genetically male, is the most massive organism on Earth –a grove of 47,000 quivering aspen trees — Populus tremuloides — connected by a single root system, and all with the same DNA.
But this majestic behemoth, reports JoAnna Klein in The New York Times, may be more of a Goliath, suggests a study published Wednesday in PLOS ONE. Threatened by herds of hungry animals and human encroachment, Pando is shrinking and appears to be fighting a losing battle.
“Humans decide on how many animals are there and how they move around,” Rogers told Earther. “Because there are people there recreating and having homes in the area and roads in the area, you’re not allowed to hunt. Because of human presence, deer are more safe, which causes a localized overabundance of the animals.”
The study, consisting of recent ground surveys and an analysis of 72 years of aerial photographs, revealed that this unrealized natural treasure and keystone species will continue to dwindle without more careful management of the forest, and the mule deer and cattle that forage within him.
How Pando got so big is a mystery. Researchers, Dr. Rogers and Darren McAvoy, a forestry colleague at Utah State, surveying the forest found that the older trees were dying, as expected, but the younger ones weren’t replacing them. Pando is constantly reproducing, which is essential to its resilience. Lacking genetic diversity, it relies on having trees of different sizes and ages. That way, if one layer or generation dies off, there’s another waiting to replace it. In fact, the forest has been failing to self-reproduce since at least 30 to 40 years ago.
The tree system needs time free of grazers in order to regrow. The Pando is not like other trees, Roger explained.
“They don’t live as long [as other trees], and they regrow,” he told Earther. “They send a hormonal signal whenever one of them dies to spread from the roots, not from seed. That’s its survival mechanism. When trees are dying and you don’t see any regrowth, that’s a red flag.”
“People are at the center of that failure,” said co-author Paul Rogers, the director of the Western Aspen Alliance at Utah State University who authored a similar study last year on a smaller portion of the Pando.
Aerial photos, continues Klein, also revealed “that Pando’s crown steadily thinned as human activity grew, especially in the last half century, with the addition of campgrounds, cabins and a telephone line, which drew animals that graze on forest leaves and shoots.”
“All these human actions have favored these browsers — their numbers, their lack of movement — so that they have a safe haven,” said Dr. Rogers. “And all of this is to the detriment of the survival of this clone.”
“If we can save this, there are lessons that may help us save hundreds to thousands of species worldwide,” Rogers observed. “If we can’t manage that 106 acres and restore it, what does that say about our greater interactions with the earth?”
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