It’s old, it’s huge, and it’s faltering. The massive aspen platform nicknamed ‘Pando’, located in south-central Utah, is more than 100 acres of genetically identical shivering plant life, believed to be the largest living thing on Earth (based on dry weight mass, 13 million lbs.). What looks like a shimmering panorama of individual trees is actually a group of genetically identical stems with an enormous common root system.
Now, after a lifespan that spans thousands of years, the “trembling giant” is beginning to crumble, according to new research.
Paul Rogers, associate professor of ecology at the Quinney College of Natural Resources and director of the Aspen Western Alliance, completed the first comprehensive assessment of Pando in five years. It showed that deer (and, to a lesser extent, livestock) were detrimental to the stand – limiting the growth of new aspen suckers and putting an effective expiration date on the massive plant. As old trees age, new aspen shoots have not escaped voracious browsers to replace them. Pando was slowly dying.
In response to the threat, the managers erected a fence around a section of the platform to keep the animals away from grazing, creating an experience of sorts. Rogers recently returned to evaluate the strategy, and to do a good check on Bandeau’s overall health. Report his findings in the journal conservation science and practice.
Pando appears to take three divergent environmental paths based on how the sectors are managed, according to the research. About 16 percent of the runway is adequately fenced to prevent browsing animals; New aspen suckers that survive the first tender years to grow into new trees. But in more than a third of the stands, the fences fell into disrepair and were only recently strengthened. Previous browsing still has negative implications in this section; Old and dying trees still outnumber the young.
Still unfenced areas (about 50 percent of the amphitheater) still have concentrated levels of deer and cattle consuming the bulk of the young shoots. These hard-hit areas are now transforming ecologically in different ways, Rogers said. Ripe aspen trunks die without being replaced, opening the upper decks and allowing more sunlight to constantly reach the forest floor, altering the composition of the plant. These unfenced areas experience the fastest decline in aspen, while other fenced areas take their own unique courses – in fact, disintegrating this unique and historically unified forest.
Rogers said Bando’s survival solution may not be just more fencing. While unfenced areas fade quickly, fencing alone encourages individual regeneration in a forest that has maintained itself over the centuries through uneven growth. Rogers said that while this may not seem critical, aspen and short growth patterns unlike in the past do occur.
In Utah and across the West, the pando is an iconic symbol and resembles the canaries of the coal mine. As a primary species, aspen forests support high levels of biodiversity – from titmouse to thimbleberry. As ecosystems thrive or dwindle, countless species follow suit. The long-term failure of new recruitment in aspen systems could have ripple effects on the hundreds of species that depend on them.
In addition, there are aesthetic and philosophical problems with fencing strategy, Rogers said.
“I think if we tried to save the organism with fences alone, we would find ourselves trying to create something like a zoo in the wild,” Rogers said. “Although the fencing strategy is well-intentioned, we will eventually need to address the underlying problems of the frequent surfing of deer and cattle in this landscape.”
Bando is a paradox. It’s famous for being the largest living creature on Earth, but it’s relatively small in the big picture of conservation challenges around the world — or even just in Utah, he said. But as a symbol, it speaks of the fate of aspen diversity and healthy human interactions with the Earth as a whole. Lessons learned while protecting the Pando also offers perspective on the struggling aspen forests that cover the Earth’s northern hemisphere.