The gargantuan chain hooked to the two large bulldozers was designed to tow cruise ships and Navy destroyers, so a weathered stand of juniper trees clinging to the dry, scorched slope certainly didn’t stand much of a chance.
With the dozers spaced about 50 yards apart and facing the same direction, a wave from one of the drivers and both machines were set in motion. The slack tightened and the chain began dragging along the ground, uprooting burned out trees, churning up rocks and dust, and leaving a pattern of perforations in the earth in its wake.
Within minutes, the chain has covered a wide swath of land heading up the hillside. At a certain point, the dozers turn around and begin heading back in the other direction, like a giant lawn mowing project with the chain as the blade.
It looks like a scene of mass destruction – and for the moment, it is — but those small furrows, created by rods welded to the chain that rotate when it’s in motion, will soon become little nurseries for a new generation of plants.
That was the scene on a sunny day in early December when Nate Long, a biologist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, was generous enough with his time to spend a few hours giving a tour and explaining the latest habitat restoration project at Dennis Hill, an area roughly halfway between Park Valley and Grouse Creek where a wildfire swept through last summer.
The process we were witnessing is called “chaining,” one of several techniques used to manage the sweeping habitat of Box Elder County’s west desert with a goal of balancing wildlife needs and ranching uses, which have often come into conflict.
“Chaining is really good because it covers a lot of area fast,” Long explained.
Chaining is done on habitat where drill seeding (using tractors to replant areas much like a farmer would do in the fields) isn’t feasible because of the steep, rugged terrain.
“Drill seeding is more effective, more uniform, but we can’t do it on this area because a tractor can’t go on the steep, rocky areas,” Long said. “You’d need an army or tractors and drills. It would be cost prohibitive to have 20 tractors out there.”
Once the chaining is done, a plane will flyover and drop a specially formulated mixture of plant seeds throughout the area.
“We use a mix of native and introduced species that are beneficial to wildlife,” Long said. “We try and do that when those things are naturally seeding, then it’s best if it’s covered by snow fairly quickly, which gets that moisture in and also helps work the seed into the ground.”
Different plants naturally go to seed at different times of year, “so it’s not feasible to seed everything at different times and chain and rechain,” he said. “We’re seeding a lot of different species, so you play the averages as best you can.”
The land out here is a patchwork of private, state and federal lands, and each type of land is managed differently. Private land in the area is mostly owned by cattle ranchers, who want grasses that provide nutritious feed to their livestock. On government land, the focus is often more on improving the area for various wildlife, most notoriously the sage grouse, a species that has become a flashpoint in the debate over how lands are, or should be, managed in the west.
“There are different interests to consider,” Long said. “In some areas we put in a lot of bitterbrush and serviceberry, which is not ideal for a landowner trying to grow really fat cows, but it’s really good for deer.”
This area is also prime sage grouse habitat, he said, which has become a major consideration as the fight over whether to include the bird on the federal Endangered Species List rages on. Sometimes chaining is done to remove the juniper and pinyon forests and replace them with the sagebrush that the grouse depend on to survive. But ranchers typically don’t want sagebrush, instead favoring the grasses that provide cattle feed.
Sage grouse need open, sagebrush-covered land, and sometimes green, non-burned trees are chained to clear the way for more sagebrush habitat. While that might look like wanton destruction of habitat to the untrained eye, Long said it’s beneficial to the grouse.
“One of the largest, if not the largest, sage grouse leks (breeding grounds) is just a mile away,” Long said. “It’s a critical sage grouse area, so that has been a main factor in our design of the rehab project.”
Chaining has come under fire from some environmental groups that say it’s a way of clearing more native trees and habitat for ranching. Long said that while grazing is an important consideration in many of these habitat projects, everyone is really looking for a balance.
“Certainly it benefits grazing, and we’re pro-grazing. Grazing done right is beneficial to wildlife,” he said. “Anytime you mess with the habitat, there’s people that are against it. Typically once you explain the why, the benefit and all that, almost everyone I’ve dealt with comes around and says ‘I see why you’re doing that.’”