“Nuke the CliffRose!” was the unexpected rallying cry for our Grand Canyon Trust volunteer project in the Kaibab National Forest on National Public Lands day (last Saturday). For a group of native plant lovers it was a difficult rallying cry to embrace at first. Cliff rose is a native plant and these environmentalists were used to collecting seeds and lovingly pruning, not nuking. Our flavor of nuclear warfare against these plants was to cut them down to waist height using hand saws and pruning shears.
Why? Well, because mule deer are also native to the area and they are in trouble. This part of the west Kaibab is a critical piece of their winter range and it was ravaged by fire twice in the last 10 years.
8,000 mule deer graze in this area during the winter months and you can see the effects. They eat all of the Cliff rose buds that are at a good height for them, which means that the shrub starts to grow taller and twist until it looks like a Dr. Seuss tree. The good news is that as a hardy Arizona plant, Cliff Rose can survive most anything. If you cut off a branch it will start putting out new branches from where it was severed. We cut off everything that was above our waist so that the plant would put out a bunch of new leaders at a height that the mule deer could reach. This was the first half of the day, half of our mule deer diet strategy.
The second half involved growing new plants that the deer enjoy. There are some plants that love to come into an area that has just seen destruction. Here, that eager beaver was the infamous cheat grass. I noticed that the native plant lovers would not call cheat grass by its scientific name. They would get a pained expression on their face and spit out the words CHEAT grass and they spend an hour digging its seeds out of their socks and shoes so they wouldn’t carry it anywhere else. Nothing eats cheat grass. Not mule deer, not rabbits, not cows, not even goats. And it spreads and grows up high so that soon all you can see is a meadow of straw colored grass blowing in the wind. Unfortunately, it would be a waste of time to rip up the cheat grass or even burn it out, it would just come back twice as strong and there would still be little to no native grasses competing with it. So instead, the native plant lovers got to put down seeds of native plants. The goal is to get enough native plants growing that they can start to compete with the cheat grass. Specifically, we raked back areas where old Juniper trees had been pulverized, threw handfuls of Indian Rice Grass, Cliffrose, gramma grass, and more that I don’t remember. And then covered them over with duff and then weighted the duff down with branches so our seeds and soil wouldn’t blow away. It was a bit odd to be a gardener in the forest, raking my plots and hoping plants would grow in a place I may never visit again.
Happy National Public Lands Day! Thanks to Grand Canyon Trust, Arizona Game and Fish, Kaibab National Forest, and Arizona Deer Association for working together on this project.