Over the course of more than 60 years, research by Drs. William Bramble and William Byrnes has constructed a blueprint for how to effectively manage rights of way (ROWs) with wildlife habitat in mind. Their research, started in 1953 as The State Game Lands (SGL) 33 Research and Demonstration Project, began in response to hunters’ concerns about the effects of herbicides on game species.
It’s now considered the standard on how to use integrated vegetation management-including selective herbicides-as a means to create and maintain ROWs that transmit safe and reliable power while providing desirable wildlife habitat.
An increasing number of utilities and their contract applicators are applying these principles on ROWs, and for wildlife it’s making a difference.
Herbicides Help Make Rough Terrain Manageable
Trees Inc. contracts with utilities across the country to manage their ROWs-utilities such as Rocky Mountain Power, based in Salt Lake City, which has 16,400 miles of transmission line ROW that keeps the power on for more than a million customers in Idaho, Utah and Wyoming.
This area is home to some rough mountain terrain, making vegetation management challenging.
“But rough terrain isn’t the primary concern when managing ROW in this area,” said Darren West, a forest technician with Trees Inc. “The biggest challenge we face is governmental regulations and environmental stipulations because a large part of Rocky Mountain Power’s ROWs fall onto land managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service. We need to make sure we comply with different agencies’ requirements and secure approval from different public land managers before we do anything.”
West has worked on the Rocky Mountain Power account for 18 years, and in that time he’s built relationships with area land managers and understands what’s acceptable with herbicide use.
“Herbicides play a big role in our right of way management because they allow us to minimize our footprint on the rights of way,” West said. “Typically, after we’ve cleared an area mechanically, we transition to herbicides to maintain it. Our focus is on cover-type conversion inside our transmission line rights of way, where we go from tall-growing trees to a more stable low-growing plant community.”
West has worked with CWC Chemical Inc. when developing the herbicide mixes used on Rocky Mountain Power’s ROWs. West worked mainly with Jason Myers, national accounts manager with CWC, who has worked with Trees Inc. and Rocky Mountain Power since the inception of its ROW program.
To keep things simple, Trees Inc. uses only a couple of herbicide mixes on Rocky Mountain Power’s ROWs. For high volume applications, the go-to mix is Garlon 3A specialty herbicide combined with Tordon 101M herbicide and metsulfuron, and a nonionic surfactant. For many low-volume treatments, it’s Milestone specialty herbicide with Rodeo herbicide and metsulfuron, and a surfactant. Both mixes are selective to desirable forbs and shrubs that are growing in the area, which is important when considering the dual purpose many ROWs can serve.
Rights of Way That Distribute Power and Provide Safe Passage
Besides working with Trees Inc., West serves as the Utah volunteer conservation project coordinator for the Mule Deer Foundation. An avid hunter, he has a vested interest in sustaining Utah’s mule deer population, which, until recently, was rapidly declining because of several factors, most notably, urban sprawl.
Mule deer and other grazing animals, such as elk, need safe passage to get from their winter range feeding grounds in the lower mountain elevations to the summer range feeding grounds in the higher elevations and vice versa. Urban sprawl had shrunk these vital corridors, leading to increased deaths from starvation, predators feeding on fawns and most dangerously, animals running into traffic trying to migrate.
West realized he was staring at a solution every day as he worked on Rocky Mountain Power’s ROWs. With proper management, these land easements could serve two purposes: deliver power and provide mule deer with corridors for safe passage to feeding grounds. But not everyone was convinced at first.
“Initially, parties like the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources were concerned about using herbicides in these critical areas for wildlife,” West said. “It was a long education process because they assumed we were going to nuke everything with our treatments. But we knew using selective herbicides like Garlon and Milestone would not only help us keep undesirable vegetation away from power lines, but would encourage the growth of native forbs and shrubs that the deer prefer for forage. Eventually, everyone agreed.”
The plan was to increase desirable forage species as a means to encourage the deer to visit the ROWs. The beneficial forbs and shrubs included sagebrush, bitterbrush, rabbit brush, and both curly and mountain mahogany, as well as native grasses such as bunch grass-all high-quality forage for mule deer, elk and other grazing animals in the area.
Work began in 2011 and took several years to selectively treat the trees. Treatments targeted tall-growing species such as quaking aspen, mountain maple, gamble oak, juniper and pinion. Also targeted were invasive plant species such as Russian knapweed, thistles, houndstongue, hoary cress and leafy spurge.
“Partnering with the Mule Deer Foundation, we started treating certain areas of Rocky Mountain Power’s rights of way where we knew the potential for wildlife was high-in all about 100 miles,” West said. “My job was to provide herbicide treatment recommendations, but also to serve as an adviser on what we should do to encourage desirable species to take hold.”
Everyone’s Happy- Especially the Mule Deer
Walking the treated ROWs, it’s not hard to find evidence of wildlife frequenting the area. Lots of deer tracks and plants grazed down are some telltale signs that wildlife is taking advantage.
“I’m always looking for evidence of wildlife on our treated acres,” West said. “While it’s hard for me to quantify the increase in traffic, it’s very encouraging to find evidence that supports what we’re doing out here.”
The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (UDWR) also has taken notice. Covy Jones is a wildlife program manager, and Mark Farmer is a habitat manager. Both are experts in habitat restoration and study the impact of projects such as this on wildlife.
“Currently, our mule deer population in Utah stands at 355,000-and we are the only Western state that has seen those numbers increasing instead of shrinking,” Jones said. “Because the state is growing like crazy and habitat, including the winter range, is declining, projects like what Rocky Mountain Power is doing are so important.
“The work being done on these miles is more similar to a habitat treatment than your typical herbicide treatment. I like to say that it’s turning bedrooms into kitchens for these grazing animals.”
“We’re excited about these selective herbicide treatments because we’ve seen how it keeps the desirables like sagebrush, while taking out the species that need to go, with minimal to no off-target kill,” Farmer said. “And now, when we go in and around these areas and plant desirable forage, we don’t have to worry about it getting knocked out.”
The UDWR has been so impressed with the treatment results that it’s begun emulating the treatments on lands it manages.
“The UDWR has seen the results we’ve gotten and begun using the same treatments we’ve put in place on Rocky Mountain Power’s ROWs on its own private lands to help restore mule deer habitat,” West said.
The work that Trees Inc. is doing on Rocky Mountain Power’s ROWs complements the larger efforts that organizations such as the UDWR and Mule Deer Foundation are leading. And it’s clear the work is appreciated.
“It’s nice to work with guys who have wildlife in mind,” Jones said. “They have to do the job regardless-but they choose to do it in a manner that is beneficial to wildlife.”