BLM Working to Restore Gold Butte

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JJ Smith, restoration project manager at the Bureau of Land Management, informed an audience of the ecology of the Gold Butte area and its issues of endangered species and plants at the Friends of Gold Butte Education Series Wednesday at the Community Theatre.

When studying ecology, ecologists focus on four things, Smith said:

  • The interactions of organisms between them and the environment.
  • Movement and materials of energy through ecosystems.
  • Succession of ecosystems over time.
  • The abundance of distribution of organisms.

Smith said he and his restoration crew do quite a few restoration projects in desert environments.

“They’re very difficult and it takes a lot of time and money,” he said. “The chances of success are sometimes very low. Mainly because there’s not much water, making restoration here more difficult than anywhere else I’ve worked. And because we have pre-major challenges like red brome grass.”

Red brome is a big problem in the desert because it uses a lot of water; it crowds out other species; and it causes wildfires, Smith said.

“Wildfire is the perhaps one of the biggest problems in the deserts,” Smith said. “and most of the trees and bushes and other species cannot sustain a fire. It’s a real problem.”

Smith said they’ve tried many ways to try and prevent wildfires, or grow the native plants that used to inhabit the area.

One way is an aerial seeding study where they flooded areas with many different native seeds to try and regrow the stuff that died. However, 85 percent of the seed gets eaten, mostly by ants, birds and other animals.

“It’s a big waste of money, most of the time,” Smith said. “It also doesn’t take care of the red brome grass that remains there and grows back.”

Another way of bringing back the native plants to the desert is growing them in greenhouses and having volunteers plant them out in the desert, but the problem with that is that it’s incredibly expensive and takes a lot of time, he said.

A third option is using the technology to pinpoint the areas to focus on, such as where red brome is and where the burn areas are and where it starts.

“We’ve been using satellite data and satellite imagery and modules to figure out where are the best targets to look at,” he said. “We also use satellites to measure the reflectance so we can see when the red brome comes up.”

The final way is using a lot of herbicides, which Smith has not done yet, to try and reduce patches of weeds at least to keep adjacent areas from burning.

“This is something we’re looking into but it’s not a popular idea,” Smith said.

Smith also noted that there are animals like spring snails and the Moapa dace are becoming part of the endangered list because some plants and other predators are infecting their habitats.

“We are a hot spot full of endangered species.”

Smith said they have worked to restore the Muddy River, and the BLM started acquiring land to help keep the Moapa dace alive because talapia was becoming an invasive species.

“It worked its way up into Lake Mead and it started eating the dace,” Smith said. “What we did was put a fish barrier, or dam, to keep fish from coming upstream, and then we started restoring the surrounding habitat to make the conditions in the water better for the fish.”

The testing they’ve done has worked out well, and they think they have a good chance of restoring the native species back into the system, Smith said.

He said the Virgin River is having the same problems as the Muddy River, which they hope they can get working on within a couple of years.