Deer Are Threatening One of the World’s Largest Organisms: Pando

by Jon D. B.

Meet Pando, the largest living single organism on Earth; one that’s in danger of disappearing after millennia of life by deer and elk overgrazing.

“It’s these moments that remind us that we have plants, animals and ecosystems worth protecting. In Pando, we get the rare chance to protect all three.”

So says Richard Elton Walton, a friend of Pando’s. Despite his postdoctoral research in biology at England’s Newcastle University, Walton is a Utah native and the great state holds his heart captive. So, too, does the Pando Aspen Clone. Or “Pando” for short.

UTAH, USA – NOVEMBER 27: An aerial view of Pando trees ‘Quaking aspen’ also known as the trembling giant, which believed to be 80,000 years old, at Fish Lake National Forest in Utah, United States on November 27, 2021. With an estimated age of over 80,000 years, Pando is the oldest tree in the world as well as one of the oldest living organisms. (Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

This truly gigantic organism is the largest single living thing on our planet by mass. It’s a 106-acre-spanning being made up of it’s own 47,000 quaking aspen tree clones. Found in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah’s Fishlake National Forest, Pando has lived for thousands upon thousands of years. This single being gives life to entire ecosystems to this day, too. But biologists are now finding Pando is under severe threat.

That threat? Overgrazing by deer and elk. The US National Forest Service protects Pando. It cannot be cut down by man, but cervids are a whole other story.

Loss of Predators Leads to Rise of Deer and Elk, Which Leads to Pando’s Decline

“Overgrazing by deer and elk is one of the biggest worries,” Walton tells The Conversation as part of his expose on the issue. The biologist says that wolves and cougars once kept the numbers of these cervids in check. In modern America, however, loss of our large predators allows deer, specifically, to run rampant.

According to Walton, deer and elk tend to congregate in Pando. The protection of this woodland organism is vital, but it is a double-edged sword that allows cervids to roam free of human hunting. Their numbers are out of control as a result.

“As older trees die or fall down, light reaches the woodland floor which stimulates new clonal stems to start growing, but when these animals eat the tops off newly forming stems, they die,” Walton explains. “This means in large portions of Pando there is little new growth.”

(Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

One exception, he says, is a specific corridor of Pando that we humans fences off decades ago in order to remove dying trees. As a result, the fenced-off area excludes deer and elk from grazing. The area thrives in such a manner now that locals refer to it as “The Bamboo Garden.”

There, regeneration of Pando’s clone stems goes off without a hitch. If anything, this speaks volumes to the vital role hunting plays in conservation. Without large predators available to hunt cervids, humans must take the role of large predator. If we’re not going to live in harmony with the wolf, the cougar, and our bears, then we’ve got to learn how to keep these ecosystems in check. Balanced. Thriving.

If we don’t, then Earth’s greatest wonders – like Pando – are on their way out.