One of the greatest threats to the river and its health is the introduction and spread of invasive species. Non-native trees, such as Russian olive and tamarisk compete with native vegetation, choke water flows and reduce wildlife habitat. To address the myriad challenges invasive species have created along the river, the community-based Escalante River Watershed Partnership (ERWP) was formed in 2009 to protect and maintain a healthy river and watershed for future generations, and coordinate restoration efforts across boundaries.
To date, ERWP has restored 79 river miles encompassing land on Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument (GSENM), Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Dixie National Forest, and private lands in the Escalante and Boulder communities. There are 11 river miles left for primary treatment. Russian olive removal must continue on these last acres to ensure the benefits of the restoration activities are realized by both the wildlife and human communities of the Escalante River. (Map of treatment areas)
The current dominance of Russian olive along portions of the Escalante River threatens the continued existence of populations of numerous native animal and plant species. The non-native trees constrain the river channel, change flooding dynamics, and alter water temperature and chemistry while also restricting access for visitors. Since becoming established on the river as a dominant tree in the mid-1980s, Russian olive has been channelizing the river, trapping sediment, shading the river and causing cooler water temperatures. Russian olive also directly impacts fish habitat, eliminates riffles, gradually deepens channels, buries rocky stretches, and alters water quality and chemistry. Russian olive provides poor quality habitat for most Neotropical birds, and will degrade and even eliminate native vegetation as it invades riparian zones. Several candidate and Utah Wildlife Action Plan (WAP) species occur in these riparian communities and the river itself, including Flannelmouth sucker, Bluehead sucker, Roundtail chub, speckled dace, Bell’s vireo, Lucy’s warbler, Virginia’s warbler, and northern leopard frog. Neotropical migrants, such as Lucy’s warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Bell’s vireo, and Bullock’s oriole will benefit directly from this project as native riparian vegetation is restored through removal of Russian olive. Virginia’s warbler and several hummingbird species use the Escalante River corridor for foraging and migration and will benefit from this project. This project will directly benefit native fish, birds and other wildlife species.
Riparian ecosystems comprise a very small portion of the landscape of the Escalante, yet they are disproportionally important to wildlife and plants, typically supporting far greater species diversity than the surrounding upland ecosystems. This work preserves and protects the diversity of a naturally functioning watershed for future generations to enjoy. Removing the impenetrable thickets of Russian olive allows for visitors and wildlife to move through the frontier landscape, enjoying the wilderness as it was historically, before the invasion of exotic species. Without this work the quality of the Escalante Watershed, its associated ecological values, wildlife and access, would continue to degrade, rendering many canyons virtually inaccessible and the quality of habitat unfit to support a diversity of wildlife.
ERWP has developed a science-based Ten Year Action Plan and a Woody Invasive Control Plan, which guides efforts to restore the ecological functions and processes of a healthy watershed. These plans identify the vision for woody invasive species treatment in the watershed:
Reduce through various control methods Russian olive and other woody invasive species in the watershed to minimal levels, thereby allowing native plants and animals to thrive and natural (historical) riparian process to function, such that riparian areas become more naturally functioning, sustainable and resilient to change. Over the next five years the Partnership will increase the number of sustainable, healthy riparian and floodplain communities in the watershed while reducing those dominated by woody invasive species.
Through riparian restoration ERWP is protecting the unique objects of historic and scientific value for which these public lands were designated. ERWP strives to preserve and protect the geological, paleontological, archaeological, historical, ecological, and biological resources of the area for future generations.