SALT LAKE CITY — The Pando aspen grove in Utah is united by a shared root system, making it one of the largest single living organisms in the world. But scientists say it could be on the brink of collapse.
The grove, known as an aspen clone, covers 106 acres on the southwest bank of Fish Lake, and it’s dying from within, The Salt Lake Tribune reported . The grove is in Sevier County about 170 miles (270 kilometers) south of Salt Lake City.
Animals are eating the grove faster than it can regenerate, said Paul Rogers, an ecology professor at Utah State University and director of the Western Aspen Alliance. The grove could deteriorate beyond recovery in less than a decade, he said.
“There’s no next generation. We have a system in which the whole demography is senior citizens only,” Rogers said. “If we had a town made up of all 85- to 90-year-old people, it would not be very sustainable for very long.”
The main culprit behind the grove deterioration is mule deer. About 50 live around the site and chow down on the Aspen saplings when they appear in June, said Jim Lamb, a biologist with the state Division of Wildlife Resources.
The problem worsens as the grove’s canopy becomes sparser. As old trees die and are not replaced, the grove becomes less able to reproduce and thrive. “When you reach the point of no return, there’s not enough photosynthesis above the ground to put carbohydrates into the root system,” Rogers said.
There are ways to save the grove, but action must occur soon, Rogers said. He and other researchers fenced a 15-acre section of the grove and tracked the growth for three years. The regeneration rate was four times better inside the fence than outside.
“This clone has been around for hundreds, likely thousands of years,” Rogers said. “Something’s gone off in the last 30 years or so. If it’s been around that long and falls apart on our watch, it’s kind of a harbinger of how we interact with the Earth in general.”
While a fence could help, it’s not a perfect solution, Rogers said. Deer can still breach the fence, and fences are expensive.
John Zapell, a spokesman for the Fishlake National Forest, said no intervention efforts are currently underway. Officials are examining the possibility of adding fences, but nothing is planned yet, he said.
“We do know there are some things that probably need to be done,” Zapell said. “It all comes down to getting funding for them to be able to come down and add more fencing.”
Information from: The Salt Lake Tribune, http://www.sltrib.com