OSU Extension helps ranchers take back an invaded ecosystem

Article photo
Oregon State University range scientist Tim Deboodt stops to check groundwater in a research well.

The Eastern Oregon landscape was once covered with perennial grasses and shrubs. But as the land was settled over the last century, western juniper trees became dominant. A fierce competitor, juniper deprives native plants of water and nutrients, reshaping the landscape as it spreads, leaving bare ground and invasive grasses.

That’s bad for ranchers when cattle can’t find enough food to forage. It’s also bad for other animals and birds, like the sage grouse and antelope that rely on the native grasses for food and protection.

Oregon State University range and natural resources extension agents initiated a study in the Camp Creek drainage in Central Oregon in 1994 to evaluate impacts to the watershed of cutting juniper. In 2005, Tim DeBoodt, an Extension agent with Crook County, published findings that showed where juniper was removed near a tributary of the Crooked River, more than twice as much water remained in the ground. Additionally, perennial grasses returned, and areas of bare ground decreased as shrub cover increased.

The research is detailing how juniper’s invasion is disrupting the delicate water balance of the region. It also provides public and private land managers with a blueprint to restore the shrub-steppe ecosystem.

Mostly, that’s involved cutting down juniper. Finding uses for the knotty wood has been slow to develop and cost-prohibitive. Other OSU researchers are looking into ways to use juniper for lumber and as a biomass for energy, creating economic opportunities for rural communities.

With the help of Extension agents, rangeland is being re-established, like John Breese’s 8,000-acre ranch near Prineville. The land has been in Breese’s family since 1880. After cutting and burning the juniper, Breese has been able to increase his herd from 40 to 150 cattle.

Other signs of recovery are all around. After disappearing for more than two generations, herds of antelope have returned to Breese’s property and bluebirds are again plentiful. Breese’s ranch is also used as a laboratory for researchers and students to learn about range management.

“It’s been a real close relationship,” Breese said. “Without OSU, we would be floundering.”

Sources: Tim DeBoodt, Crook County Extension

Watch this video to learn more about OSU’s research and Extension efforts to manage western juniper.

Resources for further learning:

Biology, Ecology, and Management of Western Juniper

Western Juniper Alliance

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