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Earth Notes: The Southwest's Juniper Die-Off

Kaibab National Forest

One of northern and central Arizona’s most iconic tree species is in trouble. The shaggy bark juniper, known for its distinctive outer layers that appear to be shedding, has been dying off in significant numbers in recent years. 

The phenomenon was first documented in 2018. Since then, biologists estimate close to 100,000 acres of the conifers have perished between the communities of Paulden and Ash Fork, as well as north of Williams. Thirty percent of junipers in some areas have been wiped out. Others have turned a sickly brown.

The biggest swaths have been recorded on the Kaibab and Prescott national forests. But researchers have also observed similar die-offs in southeastern Utah. Even the hearty alligator juniper, with its trademark scaly gray bark, is showing signs of stress in higher-elevation areas near Prescott, including Thumb Butte.

Before this summer’s substantial rain, the previous two monsoon seasons were almost nonexistent. Some biologists see it as a clear sign climate change is already having major impacts on Southwestern forests, as many junipers – famous for their drought tolerance – aren’t able to hang on.

Forest managers say without regular, long-term precipitation, very little can be done in the short term to stop the juniper die-off. It remains to be seen how widespread the problem could become and what the ultimate effects on the region’s landscape will be.


Ryan joined KNAU's newsroom in 2013. He covers a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a frequent contributor to NPR.