Behold the Pando aspen clone, a sprawling carpet of vibrant green-yellow quaking aspens occupying more than 100 acres outside the Fishlake National Forest in Utah.
The “Trembling Giant,” as it is known, is actually a massive single organism connected by one sprawling root system. This ancient marvel of nature is thousands of years old – scientists don’t know exactly how old – and is considered the largest living organism on Earth.
Unfortunately, it’s also dying. And humans may be responsible.
An ancient forest degraded over decades
To be clear, according to new research published in PLOS One, it isn’t necessarily human disregard or negligence that has threatened the Trembling Giant. It’s the herbivorous ungulates, aka the deer and cattle that graze in the area, that we allow to graze among the Pando’s trees.
“While several human alterations to this forest have taken place in recent decades, it is the lack of simultaneous herbivore regulation that has caused this stand’s degeneration,” the study says.
“This all relates back to human decisions,” Paul Rogers, the author of the study, told CNN. Rogers is an adjunct professor at Utah State University and the Director of the Western Aspen Alliance.
“Even though wildlife are involved, humans govern the number and movement of animals.”
A call to treat systems, not species
The solution, Rogers says, is in aligning plant and animal conservation efforts so they work together.
“We can no longer manage wildlife and forests separately,” he says. “Typically, state governments regulate animals and the federal government regulates the forests or vegetation.”
According to the study, which included samples, photography and other data taken from a sample site within the Pando, the forest started to thin out about 40 to 50 years ago. Around that time, Rogers says populations of elk started to grow around the area.
Now, other species such as mule deer are protected by certain hunting regulations and roam unbothered. Grazing cattle populations and the rise of campgrounds and roads around the area have posed even more threats to the Pando’s ecosystem.
One organism, supporting many
Preserving the Pando clone isn’t just important because of its age and size – the forest is also an example of how a whole ecosystem can be dependent on just a few species.
“Aspen forests in general, including the Pando forest, support high levels of biodiversity,” says Rogers. In this instance, the quaking aspen is considered a “keystone species” – a species upon which others depend.
“It has a cascading effect on other species, both plants and animals. If you remove one species, others will be limited as well.”
But there’s some good news. The aspens are a hardy organism, Rogers says, and with the right actions the Pando could flourish once again.
Rogers says the Pando clone “had a survival strategy that worked very well and expanded over millennia. But now it’s becoming unwound over half a century, and that points the finger at us as the main cause.
“The upside is that clearly points the finger at us to create a restoration process, and work out compromises that are really focused on the whole ecosystem.”