According to Science Mag, the heaviest organism on the planet is dying, and it’s our fault. The Pando aspen grove in central Utah is a 13 million pound organism that came into being at the end of the last Ice Age. Despite thriving for thousands of years, the Trembling Giant is in serious trouble.
A new study published Wednesday in PLOS One shows that the 106-acre grove has failed to grow in the past 30 or 40 years. While new aspen trees are sprouting, they are being eaten by deer and cattle before they can take hold. In fact, the study authors couldn’t find a single sapling that hadn’t been nibbled.
“People are at the center of that failure,” Paul Rogers, who co-authored the study, told Earther.
Predators like wolves and bears used to roam the central Utah environment, keeping deer and other grazer populations under control. Hunting has destroyed apex predator populations, allowing deer and elk numbers to surge.
“The real problem is that there are too many mouths to feed in this area,” said Rogers.
At the same time, ranchers allow their cattle to graze in the area unchecked, and local officials have failed to enforce grazing standards in the area.
“Humans decide on how many animals are there and how they move around. Because there are people there recreating and having homes in the area and roads in the area, you’re not allowed to hunt. Because of human presence, deer are more safe, which causes a localized overabundance of the animals,” Rogers added.
Aspen forests reproduce by dropping seeds or sending out shoots that grow into new trees. But starting in the 1990s, Pando starting eating shoots to the point where the grove was no longer replacing the older and dying trees. In order to study the situation, scientists fenced off part of the forest to determine if it had an impact on the Trembling Giant.
The fenced area did recover, even where it was left to its own devices, without the help of shrub removal, which took place in another section of the fenced section of the forest. This indicates that keeping grazers out is enough to help the forest recover.
“Everybody, including myself, doesn’t want fences around this iconic grove. We don’t want to go to nature to see a bunch of fences.”
The Trembling Giant, or Pando, is an enormous grove of quaking aspens in Utah. Each tree in the grove is genetically identical. Spanning 107 acres and weighing 6,615 tons, Pando was once thought to be the world’s largest organism and is almost certainly the most massive pic.twitter.com/Fk6XeZSNS0
— Atlas Obscura (@atlasobscura) January 27, 2018
Instead of fencing, researchers say that humans could control the mule deer population and regulate grazing.