Aspens in Trouble

Seeing vibrant groves of aspen changing to yellow gold is an autumn ritual that inspires and blesses our lives.

Lying flat on my back beneath three giant aspen trees, I gazed upward. The autumn air was crisp as an apple and the yellowing leaves shimmered in the slight breeze, pairing perfectly with the strong white trunks and a sky the color of a bluebird wing. I was mesmerized and thoughts fled as I tired to absorb the visual overload, just grateful to be there.

As I roused myself from my reverie, I began to think about the aspens I was looking at. It was an entire stand of huge trees with no small or even medium sized trees, looking very much like a beautiful manicured park. In the wild though, these conditions are an indicator that the aspen stand, often called a clone because most of the stems are from the same root system, is in poor health.

For the past 100 plus years, aspen throughout the west have been declining at a serious rate. For instance, just over 120 years ago, there were approximately 35,000 acres of aspen habitat on the Ashton/Island Park Ranger District. By 1991 those acres had dwindled to about 7,600 acres, a 79 percent decline. Of the acres that are left, a recent survey revealed that 69 percent are at extreme or high risk of extirpation and only one percent are considered at low risk. The story is the same across the West.

Aspen is more than just a pretty face on the landscape. Once considered a weed by many silvaculturists because there isn’t much timber value in western aspen, current research continues to highlight the importance of aspens in maintaining biodiversity. Aspens, and more specifically, aspen habitat, not just the trees themselves, provide habitat for more species than any other western habitat with the exception of intact riparian areas. Large and small mammals from moose and elk to voles and bats, a huge array of songbirds, gamebirds such as ruffed grouse and even amphibians use quality aspen habitats extensively.

Healthy aspen habitats also have a wide variety of plants from grasses to forbs to shrubs. The biomass of green vegetation, the kind that livestock and big game love to graze and browse on, may be over four times higher in aspen habitats than in nearby conifer habitats. Somewhat analogous to the sponge effect of a beaver dam, healthy aspen habitats retain more water in the watershed and dense stands often act as natural firebreaks.

The distinction here is in the word, healthy. Most aspen habitats are anything but healthy. A healthy aspen habitat will have aspen trees of various ages, from tiny sprouts up to mature trees and lots of other plant species. If you can see through a stand of aspen to the other side, or if it looks parklike with a few large stems but no regeneration, that stand is in big trouble.

It is easy to understand that without reproduction, a stand or clone will eventually perish. Establishment of aspen seedlings (sexual reproduction) is more common than once thought, but asexual reproduction, stems sprouting from established roots is still the norm for aspen regeneration. Asexual reproduction happens all the time but can be suppressed by two things: browsing and lack of disturbance.

What is less easy to contemplate is a landscape without aspen. How that might occur and what we can do about it are the subject of the next Nature column.


Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho