Rocky Mountain right-of-way project enhances mule deer habitat
Over the course of more than 60 years, research by Drs. William Bramble and William Byrnes has constructed a blueprint for how to effectively manage rights-of-way (ROWs) with wildlife habitat in mind. Their research, started in 1953 as The State Game Lands (SGL) 33 Research and Demonstration Project, began in response to hunters’ concerns about the effects of herbicides on game species. Today, it’s considered the standard on how to use integrated vegetation management — including selective herbicides — as a means to create and maintain rights-of-way that transmit safe and reliable power while providing desirable wildlife habitat.
Today, an increasing number of utilities and their contract applicators are applying these principles on rights-of-way, and for wildlife, it’s making a real difference.
Herbicides help make rough terrain manageable.
Trees Inc. contracts with utilities across the country to manage their rights-of-way — utilities such as Rocky Mountain Power, based in Salt Lake City, which has 16,400 miles of transmission line rights-of-way that keep the power on for more than a million customers in Idaho, Utah and Wyoming.
This area is home to some very rough mountain terrain, making vegetation management challenging. But rough terrain isn’t the primary concern when managing rights-of-way in this area, says Darren West, a forest technician with Trees Inc. “The biggest challenge we face is governmental regulations and environmental stipulations because a large part of Rocky Mountain Power’s rights-of-way fall onto land managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service,” West says. “We need to make sure we comply with different agencies’ requirements and secure approval from different public land managers before we do anything.”
West has worked on the Rocky Mountain Power account for 18 years, and in that time he’s built relationships with area land managers and understands what’s acceptable when it comes to herbicide use.
“Herbicides play a big role in our right-of-way management, because they allow us to minimize our footprint on the rightsof- way,” West says. “Typically, after we’ve cleared an area mechanically, we transition to herbicides to maintain it. Our focus is on cover-type conversion inside our transmission line rights-of-way, where we go from tall-growing trees to a more stable low-growing plant community.”
West has leaned on CWC Chemical Inc., when developing the herbicide mixes used on Rocky Mountain Power’s rights-of-way. In particular, Jason Myers, national accounts manager with CWC, who has worked with Trees Inc. and Rocky Mountain Power since the inception of its right-of-way program. “It has been good working with them because of their commitment to a successful program,” Myers says. “Over the years, we have evaluated new products, including Milestone specialty herbicide, as they come to market while always basing the program around what is approved by BLM and Forest Service where many of their lines run.”
To keep things simple, Trees Inc. uses only a couple of herbicide mixes on Rocky Mountain Power’s rights-of-way. For highvolume applications, the go-to mix is Garlon® 3A specialty herbicide combined with Tordon® 101M herbicide and metsulfuron plus a nonionic surfactant. For many low-volume treatments, it’s Milestone® specialty herbicide with Rodeo® herbicide and metsulfuron plus a surfactant. Both mixes are selective to desirable forbs and shrubs that are growing in the area, which is very important when considering the dual purpose many rights-of-way can serve.
Rights-of-way that distribute power and provide safe passage.
Besides working with Trees Inc., West serves as the Utah volunteer conservation project coordinator for the Mule Deer Foundation. An avid hunter, he has a vested interest in sustaining Utah’s mule deer population, which, up until recently, was declining rapidly because of several factors, most notably, urban sprawl.
Mule deer and other grazing animals, like elk, need safe passage to get from their winter range feeding grounds in the lower mountain elevations to the summer range feeding grounds in the higher elevations and vice versa. Urban sprawl had shrunk these vital corridors, leading to increased deaths from starvation, predators feeding on fawns and most dangerously, animals running into traffic trying to migrate.
West realized he was staring at a solution every day as he worked on Rocky Mountain Power’s rights-of-way. With proper management, these easements of land could serve two purposes: deliver power and provide mule deer with corridors for safe passage to feeding grounds. But not everyone was sold right away.
“Initially, parties like the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources were concerned about using herbicides in these critical areas for wildlife,” West says. “It was a long education process because they assumed we were going to nuke everything with our treatments. But we knew using selective herbicides like Garlon and Milestone would not only help us keep undesirable vegetation away from power lines, but would encourage the growth of native forbs and shrubs that the deer prefer for forage. Eventually, everyone agreed.”
The plan was to increase desirable forage species as a means to encourage the deer to visit the rights of-way. The beneficial forbs and shrubs included sagebrush, bitterbrush, rabbit brush, and both curly and mountain mahogany, as well as native grasses like bunch grass. All high-quality forage for mule deer, elk and other grazing animals in the area.
Work began in 2011 and took several years to selectively treat the trees. Treatments targeted tall-growing species like quaking aspen, mountain maple, gamble oak, juniper and pinion. Also targeted were invasive plant species like Russian knapweed, thistles, houndstongue, hoary cress and leafy spurge.
“Partnering with the Mule Deer Foundation, we started treating certain areas of Rocky Mountain Power’s rights-of-way where we knew the potential for wildlife was high — in all about 100 miles,” West says. “My job was to provide herbicide treatment recommendations, but also to serve as an adviser on what we should do to encourage desirable species to take hold.”
Everyone’s happy — especially the mule deer.
Walking the treated rights-of-way, it’s not hard to find evidence of wildlife frequenting the area. Lots of deer tracks and plants grazed down are some telltale signs that wildlife is taking advantage. “I’m always looking for evidence of wildlife on our treated acres,” West says. “While it’s hard for me to quantify the increase in traffic, it’s very encouraging to find evidence that supports what we’re doing out here.”
The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (UDWR) also has taken notice. Covy Jones is a wildlife program manager, and Mark Farmer is a habitat manager. Both are experts in habitat restoration and study the impact of projects like this on wildlife.
“Currently, our mule deer population in Utah stands at 355,000 — and we are the only Western state that has seen those numbers increasing instead of shrinking,” Jones says. “Because the state is growing like crazy and habitat, including the winter range, is declining, projects like what Rocky Mountain Power is doing are so important.
“The work being done on these miles is more similar to a habitat treatment than your typical herbicide treatment. I like to say that it’s turning bedrooms into kitchens for these grazing animals.” Farmer agrees. “We’re excited about these selective herbicide treatments because we’ve seen how it keeps the desirables like sagebrush, while taking out the species that need to go, with minimal to no off-target kill,” Farmer says. “And now, when we go in and around these areas and plant desirable forage, we don’t have to worry about it getting knocked out.”
The UDWR has been so impressed with the treatment results that it’s begun emulating the treatments on lands it manages.
“The UDWR has seen the results we’ve gotten and begun using the same treatments we’ve put in place on Rocky Mountain Power’s rights-of-way on its own private lands to help restore mule deer habitat,” West says.
The work that Trees Inc. is doing on Rocky Mountain Power’s rights-of-way nicely complements the larger efforts that organizations like the UDWR and Mule Deer Foundation are leading. And it’s clear that the work is appreciated.
“It’s nice to work with guys who have wildlife in mind,” Jones says. “They have to do the job regardless — but they choose to do it in a manner that is beneficial to wildlife.”