Rising above a sea of windswept grassland, desert scrub, and piñon-juniper woodlands, and towering over the Grand Canyon’s north rim, the Kaibab Plateau has at various times been described as a sky island, as “the mountain”—by Arizona Strip locals, and as “the mountain lying down”—by Paiute Indians. As with mountains elsewhere in the world, the Kaibab Plateau has for millennia served as a place of refuge and sustenance for humans and animals alike. It has inspired the likes of John Wesley Powell, Teddy Roosevelt, and Aldo Leopold. It has also, over the last several decades, become a place of land use and resource extraction-based conflict, controversy, and acrimony. The Kaibab Plateau now stands far and above the surrounding landscape as a place of unparalleled need and potential for collectively-supported and visionary conservation.
In spite of unsustainable resource extraction-based use across the Plateau over the past century, the Kaibab Plateau stands as one of the Colorado Plateau’s ecological jewels. Its higher elevations contain some of the best remaining old-growth ponderosa pine forests in the region, and the densest breeding population of northern goshawks in North America. The renowned Kaibab mule deer herd calls the Plateau home during summers, and disperses off to either side of the Plateau during winter. The Plateau hosts a number of threatened, endangered, and sensitive species, as well as endemic species—limited in distribution only to the Plateau itself.
While the Plateau’s inhabitants are not threatened by the same timbering and overgrazing that they experienced earlier in the century, they are far from secure. In large part due to the legacy of historical extraction-based forest management, ponderosa pine forests across the Plateau are ecologically out of balance. Intense fires, such as the Warm Fire that burned 60,000 acres in 2006, threaten the Plateau. Invasive, non-native species such as cheatgrass threaten to colonize and dominate vast reaches of the Plateau. Without natural population control by predators, some of which have been extirpated from the Plateau, the Kaibab mule deer herd has the potential to over browse sensitive habitats, especially in its winter range on the Kaibab Plateau’s west side. Climate change is likely to place enormous stress on the Plateau’s native plant communities and wildlife populations.
Our restoration and conservation goals center on facilitating the return of natural fire to all woodlands and forest types and reestablishment of productive and biologically diverse grassland ecosystems, from the open and arid zones at lower elevations, to the large alpine meadows at the top of the Plateau. While reduction in the cover and occurrence of invasive non-native plants, particularly cheatgrass, is important, the restoration of natural processes to native ecosystems is likely the best way to accomplish this at higher elevations, where fire and overstory influences drive understory characteristics, and where the process of non-native species invasion has been slower and less advanced.
Beyond restoring natural processes and native plant communities across the Plateau, we are focused on restoring and maintaining a full complement of wildlife species native to the area, including native herbivores and predators, and discouraging the spread of non-native wildlife species that have established incipient populations on the Plateau. American bison and American elk have small populations that have the potential to grow and impact native mule deer and domestic livestock operations, and the extirpation of the gray wolf and reduction in other predators have had poorly understood impacts on the Kaibab ecosystem. In the future, we hope to see robust populations of native species and intact interspecific interactions, including predator-prey relationships, across a landscape that remains largely open, intact, and wild.