Cows and deer threaten Earth’s largest living organism
We expect destruction to come from something obviously terrible, such as nuclear war or a giant asteroid plunging towards Earth. But a much gentler threat may be the death of the world’s largest living organism; Utah’s Pando Aspen Grove. Deer and cows are nibbling it into oblivion.
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Aspen trees look like, well, individual trees. But groves are really one being, with genetically identical cloned stems rising from one root system. “Pando” is Latin for “I spread.” On the Colorado Plateau in south-central Utah, 47,000 cloned trunks form one 13-million-pound organism.
The way Pando works is that as each trunk dies—after 85 to 130 years—new shoots take their place. But Paul Rogers, an ecologist at Utah State University and director of the Western Aspen Alliance, says more trunks are dying than regenerating.
People have come up with wildly varying age estimates of Pando. Rogers’ is on the conservative side, guessing that the organism is probably only a few thousand years old. In humans’ never-ending quest for control, they’ve messed up the ecosystem. Killing wolves, cougars and bears and letting cattle graze in the forest means too many vegetarians chomping down Pando’s new shoots. New trunks can’t mature. “Imagine walking into a town of 50,000 people where everybody in town was 85 years old,” Rogers said, as reported in National Geographic. “That’s sort of the issue with Pando.”
The state manages the deer and elk population, and likes to keep them high to make hunters happy. The area around Pando is for recreation, not hunting. But the deer and elk are no fools. They long ago figured out they were safe at Pando, and had lots of lovely green shoots to eat.
Possible solutions to save Pando include shooting deer with blanks, chasing them around with vehicles, setting off firecrackers or fencing off large areas. Or changing the laws to allow hunting near Pando and thinning out the deer population. As usual, it will be a fight between human interests of what different factions want to control.