Bear Lake Sculpin – Cottus extensus

Bear Lake Sculpin - Cottus extensus: Hayley Glassic with a Bear Lake Cutthroat Courtesy & Copyright Jeremy Jensen
Hayley Glassic with a Bear Lake Cutthroat
Courtesy & Copyright Jeremy Jensen
In Bear Lake, there lives a small, bright blue eyed, bottom-dwelling fish species that may appear insignificant as it moves among the lake’s cobble areas.

The fish grows up to three inches in length and is endemic to Utah’s northern most lake, hence its name – the Bear Lake sculpin.

The sculpin is a scale-free, tadpole-like fish with a broad flat head, a slender body and eyes placed high on its head. It has elaborate pectoral fins that stretch out like decorative fans from both sides of its body and two dorsal fins along its back that sometimes connect at the base.

Bear Lake Sculpin - Cottus extensus: Sculpin Courtesy & Copyright Jereme Gaeta
Sculpin
Courtesy & Copyright Jereme Gaeta
Although the sculpin is small, its worth is significant. One of the main sportfish of Bear Lake, the Bonneville Cutthroat trout, rely heavily on the sculpin to be a source of food as its main forage fish, the sculpin makes up more than 70% of the diet for juvenile trout.

Interestingly, Bear Lake is the only place the sculpin is natively found and it is one of only two sculpins in the West that live in deep-water lake habitats.

It stays exclusively in the lake. While other fish in Bear Lake migrate up the tributaries to spawn, the sculpin seek out the lakes cobble areas where it can find cavities under and between the rocks to lay its eggs.

The best cobble habitat in Bear Lake is along the eastern shore at Cisco Beach where the shallow water covers the rounded rocks that range from 2-12 inches in size. Only 0.1% of Bear Lake is cobble habitat.

Bear Lake Sculpin - Cottus extensus: Bear Lake Sckulpin Courtesy & Copyright Jeremy Jensen
Bear Lake Sculpin
Courtesy & Copyright Jeremy Jensen
The shallow location of the cobble is important for the successful nest since the wave turbulence begins the hatching process. Waves and currents also help with the dispersal of the sculpin embryos throughout the 282 square kilometer lake.

Once hatched the young-of-the year have a feeding ritual quite different from their juvenile and adult counterparts. While the older sculpin stay on the bottom of the lake foraging for food, the young float up during the day to where the sun easily penetrates the water. The sunlight makes it easier for the young sculpin to find their food and it warms their bodies so they can digest their food more rapidly– which stimulates growth. The young sculpin can feed up to nine times faster during the day than they would at night. Once they have grown, it is difficult for sculpin to rise up the water column because they do not have swim bladders as trout do.

An essential component to have a large population of new sculpin each year is to ensure there is sufficient cobble habitat in Bear Lake.

When drought years hit, large portions of the cobble are exposed due to both that drought and human use. While the lake has never dropped to the level where all cobble habitat is exposed, a USU research team has documented more than 96% of cobble reductions during extreme multi-year drought events. This raises major concerns and questions about how a decrease in cobble would impact the sculpin population.

To investigate this question, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources awarded a research grant to Jereme Gaeta, assistant professor in the Department of Watershed Sciences and the Ecology Center in the Quinney College of Natural Resources to improve our understanding of the potential effects of drought on cobble habitats and fish communities.

Bear Lake Sculpin - Cottus extensus: Sculpin in Haley Glassic's hand Courtesy & Copyright Jeremy Jensen
Sculpin in Haley Glassic’s hand
Courtesy & Copyright Jeremy Jensen
Hayley Glassic, a graduate student in Gaeta’s lab has worked on this project since 2015. In the coming months their findings will be published and made available to the public.

This may be important reading for any agency or person making decisions about the Bear Lake water levels, which would impact the cobble habitat of the Bear Lake sculpin.

According to Glassic, “Sculpin appear to be one of the essential parts of the entire (Bear Lake) ecosystem.” Ensuring their cobble habitat is preserved during drought years is necessary for the overall health of the lake’s ecosystem.

This is Shauna Leavitt for Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy and Copyright Jeremy Jensen
Photos: Courtesy and Copyright Jereme Gaeta
Text: Shauna Leavitt

Sources & Additional Reading

Bear Lake Sculpin – Cottus extensus, USGS, https://nas.er.usgs.gov/queries/factsheet.aspx?SpeciesID=503

Bear Lake Sculpin – Cottus extensus, Fishbase Consortium, http://fishbase.org/summary/Cottus-extensus.html

Bear Lake Sculpin – Cottus extensus, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, https://dwrcdc.nr.utah.gov/rsgis2/Search/Display.asp?FlNm=cottexte

Bear Lake Blue Ribbon Fishery, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, https://wildlife.utah.gov/hotspots/brwaterbody.php?id=41

Bear Lake Sculpin – Cottus extensus, Idaho Fish & Game, https://idfg.idaho.gov/ifwis/cwcs/pdf/Bear%20Lake%20Sculpin.pdf

Orphaned Bear Cub Rehabilitation

Orphaned Cub: Bear Cubs in an Enclosure One of the facility’s natural climbing structures, and some of the conspecific interactions that took place in the pens. myers.patrick.rehab.bear.cubs.250x224
Bear Cubs in an Enclosure One of the facility’s natural climbing structures, and some of the conspecific interactions that took place in the pens.

New research reveals that orphaned cubs will likely avoid humans if properly rehabilitated.

Sadly each year, there are orphaned bear cubs in Utah. Some lose their mothers to forest fires, while others are orphaned by vehicle-bear collisions or other human-related conflicts.

If the orphaned cubs are too young to survive on their own and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) finds them before they perish they can be rehabilitated and have a good chance of surviving.

With the help of USU’s Dr. Julie Young a U.S. Department of Agriculture wildlife biologist and associate professor in the Quinney College of Natural Resources, who has expertise in managing carnivores in captivity, DWR was able to help build appropriate enclosures for the rehabilitation of the cubs.

Young helped built these temporary homes at the USDA National Wildlife Research Center’s Predator Research Facility in Millville, Utah.

To ensure the enclosures met the basic needs of cubs the researchers contacted approximately a dozen rehab facilities around the US and Canada to find out “HOW” to rehab bears.
Interestingly, there were large differences in responses.

According to Young, “A few consistent traits did emerge. Bears get easily bored, they like to play and investigate everything. So, we made sure the pens had lots of enrichment items and activities and everything was extremely sturdy since bears are very strong even as babies!

“Because they were being released back into the wild, we wanted to do as much as we could to give them natural surroundings – like logs, twigs, etc.

We scattered nuts and berries around so the cubs could learn to forage.”
One fun thing about bears – is they love water! The cubs spent a lot of time in their huge tubs or playing in the water fountain meant for drinking.

Dr. Young’s graduate student, Patrick Myers, recently completed a study of the orphaned cub rehabilitation which contributed to DWR’s Bear Management Plan to “maintain a healthy bear population…while considering human safety.”
Myers began his work in the summer of 2014 when DWR brought six orphaned cubs to the Millville bear rehabilitation site.
Throughout the rehabilitation, there was very little human contact to ensure the bears did not become familiar with humans. This was tough since cubs are cute and people wanted to see them. However, they remained firm and did not allow visiting hours. They removed as many human sights, sounds and odors as possible by keeping noise to a minimum, and since bears have extremely good noses they eliminated as many human smells as possible no perfumes or scented lotions were allowed.

At feeding time they fed the cubs from behind a blind, or put them in one pen while they cleaned and left food in the other. The researchers never went in the same pen as the cubs.

Loading two immobilized and recently collared cubs into their enclosures for transport to their release locations. myers.patrick.release.team.250x166
Loading two immobilized and recently collared cubs into their enclosures for transport to their release locations.

Myer’s research was unique. In addition to the regular food and development regiments, the cubs went through numerous behavioral tests to determine if they were bold, shy or somewhere in between when introduced to novel stimulus.

Consistent test results were the key in determining what type of animal personalities the cubs had.
One test included placing the cubs in a new enclosure with the same layout as their previous one. The shy cubs responded by hugging the walls and cautiously moving around while the bold cubs began exploring immediately with little signs of fear.

Once Myers classified the bears, and the cubs were old enough, the research team released the young bears to remote locations throughout Utah.

Patrick Myers has immobilized and extracted one of the bears from her den in early spring of 2016 to assess her health and the fit of her collar; this was in the Lake Canyon area, southwest of Duchesne. myers.patrick.den.check.250x188
Patrick Myers has immobilized and extracted one of the bears from her den in early spring of 2016 to assess her health and the fit of her collar; this was in the Lake Canyon area, southwest of Duchesne.

Myers monitored the bears throughout 2015 until they emerged from their dens in the spring of 2016.
“The bears were fitted with expandable GPS collars so they would grow when the cubs did and so Myers could watch their movement from a computer. Myers went to check out dens once they left them, to be sure their habitat choices were appropriate based on bear biology.

Young explains, “We went with UDWR and checked on the two females their second denning season in the wild –and they looked great!”

Myers and Young were pleased to see that even though the cubs had been in close proximity to the smell of humans for many months; neither the bold nor the shy bears sought humans once they released them. They all had healthy responses to their natural habitat and behaved much like young bears not orphaned. They searched for dens almost immediately, and remained in the remote locations.

Although this is a small study, the initial results show that orphaned cubs, whether shy or bold, will likely avoid humans and retain their natural instincts if property rehabilitated.

This may be a useful management practice for restoring bears where populations are dwindling and habitat is ideal.

This is Shauna Leavitt for Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photo: Courtesy Utah Division of Wildlife Resources
Text: Shauna Leavitt

Sources & Additional Reading

USDA APHIS National Wildlife Research Center, https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/ourfocus/wildlifedamage/programs/nwrc

Bear denning in the south Book Cliffs, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, https://wildlife.utah.gov/blog/2013/bear-denning-in-the-south-book-cliffs/

“Can you help me? There’s a bear on my boat.”, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, https://wildlife.utah.gov/blog/2013/can-you-help-me-theres-a-bear-on-my-boat/

Securing Utah’s Moose Population

Moose with radio collar Courtesy & Copyright Sam Robertson, Photographer
Moose with radio collar
Alces alces
Courtesy & Copyright Sam Robertson, Photographer
Historically, the settlers and hunters of Utah didn’t find moose when they were exploring the state.
It wasn’t’ until 1906-07 when the first recorded moose sighting occurred in Utah.

Ironically, at this same time the population of Shiras moose also known as Wyoming moose (the subspecies found in Utah today) was dangerously close to extinction due to overhunting.

Settlers in nearby states had preferred hunting moose because the large animal was easy to catch, and was an efficient way to obtain a few hundred pounds of sweet venison.

To prevent their extinction, western states discontinued moose hunting for a time. Until 1950, hunters agreed to hunt other deer species to provide time for the moose population to replenish.
Searching for moose became a challenging spectators sport.

Moose are active during the day and loners most of the year (except mothers with their young) and since they prefer habitat where they can easily hide – finding one was a rare occasion.

By 1957, Utah’s moose had a resident herd in the Uinta mountains and the population continued to grow.
Dan MacNulty, associate professor in the Department of Wildland Resources in the Quinney College of Natural Resource at USU has been studying the state’s moose. He explains, “Utah’s moose population reached an estimated high of over 3,500 in 2005. The population subsequently declined to a current estimate of 2,600 moose. The reasons for this drop were unclear.”

To determine the factors causing the fluctuation in the moose population, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) joined with MacNulty’s research lab to investigate the drivers of moose population growth. MacNulty says, “The first priority of the research was to determine the current status of the moose population. Is it increasing, decreasing or stable?”

Moose Cow & Calf with radio collars Courtesy & Copyright Sam Robertson, Photographer
Moose Cow & Calf with radio collars
Courtesy & Copyright Sam Robertson, Photographer
To do this, the researchers collared 120 female adult moose in two established herds – 60 in the Wasatch Mountains and another 60 in the North Slope of the Uinta Range.

Female moose are the best indicators of the health of the herd. The females provide the data to determine the health of both the adults and calves. By tracking them, the research team can see the number of females that calve, the number of calves who survive their first winter to join the population, and the survival rate of the adults during the four-year project.

When the first year of data was gathered they found in both herds, 80-90 percent of the collared females survived. Kent Hersey, Big Game Project Leader for DWR adds, “Compared to other moose herds, Utah moose tend to have average or below average survival rates.”

Joel S. Ruprecht, USU graduate student in MacNulty’s lab discovered one reason this may be occurring. He found the maternal fat stores of the female directly impact the reproductive and survival success in Shiras moose.
When midwinter fat stores of the expecting moose were measured Ruprecht found it predicted whether the female moose would successfully give birth to her young and also whether her young would live long enough to become a healthy long-term member of the herd.

If a solution for the population drop could be to increase nutrition levels of the mothers, then DWR may be able to improve habitat conditions for adult moose and increase their health, which would in turn increase calving rates.
DWR plans to use these research findings to help stabilize Utah’s moose population.
The results may have come at an ideal time since the state’s 7-year Statewide Moose Management Plan expires later this year.

This is Shauna Leavitt for Wild About Utah

Credits:
Photos: All photos copyright and courtesy of Sam Robinson.
Text: Shauna Leavitt, USGS Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University

Additional Reading

Moose, Alces apces, compiled by Anthony Bell, Vertebrate Zoology Collections Assistant, Utah Museum of Natural History, https://nhmu.utah.edu/sites/default/files/attachments/Alces%20alces.pdf

Moose entering water, Jeff Rice, Western Soundscape Archive; University of Utah, https://collections.lib.utah.edu/details?id=1117822

Moose in Utah, Jason Pietrzak, Wild About Utah, Bridgerland Audubon Society/Utah Public Radio, 30 Sept 2008, http://wildaboututah.org/moose-in-utah/

Moose, Wild Aware Utah, Hogle Zoo & Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, http://www.wildawareutah.org/utah-wildlife-information/moose/

Utah Moose Statewide Management Program, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, https://wildlife.utah.gov/hunting/biggame/pdf/moose_plan.pdf

Greater Sage-Grouse in Utah

Female Sage-Grouse Flying in Winter, Courtesy & Copyright Todd Black, Photographer
Female Sage-Grouse Flying in Winter, Courtesy & Copyright Todd Black, Photographer
Utah’s dry, sagebrush covered landscapes are home to one of North American’s largest grouse species, commonly known as the greater sage-grouse.

The females are attractive chicken-size birds with gently curved bodies. Their feathers show streaks of black, brown and gray. This pattern acts as a natural camouflage in their sagebrush habitat to help protect them from predators.

Male Sage-Grouse on Lek, Courtesy & Copyright Todd Black, Photographer
Male Sage-Grouse on Lek, Courtesy & Copyright Todd Black, Photographer
Males are distinguished from females by their majestic form and decorative feather patterns. They are often twice the size of females and can weigh over seven pounds. A thick layer of white plumage covers the males’ breast and wraps up around both sides of their thick necks. Their tails are a long spray of pointy feathers, which rise into a beautiful fan during courting season and provide the basis for their scientific name Centrocercus urophasianus derived from the Greek word “kentron” meaning spiny, “kerkos” meaning tail, and urophasianus meaning tail of a pheasant.

To help protect against predators their wing and back feathers have streaks of black, grey, and brown – similar to the females.

Buried under the male’s white breast feathers are two air sacs that remain concealed until mating season begins.
The greater sage-grouse are probably best known, by most, for their extravagant courtship rituals.

Around the beginning of March, the male grouse return to their communal mating grounds called a lek where they compete with other males to attract and breed with the females. The ritual is called lekking. The lek is in an open area where visibility is good – such as a dry lakebed.

Dominate Male Sage-Grouse with Females, Courtesy & Copyright Todd Black, Photographer
Dominate Male Sage-Grouse with Females, Courtesy & Copyright Todd Black, Photographer
To show their dominance, the males raise their tail feathers in a magnificent fan, fill their breast sacs with air then thrust the air out of the sacs making a popping/bubbling sound as they strut around the lek in a regal fashion.

The females are attracted to the leks by the calls of the males, which can carry for over 1.5 miles. When they arrive, they roost among the males to watch their strutting performances. The hens may visit the lek several times during the breeding season before nesting.

During the courtship rituals, the females will begin searching for a nesting site. Most will choose to build their nests under the protective cover of a sagebrush bush. The female lines the bowl-shaped nest with dead grass and a few feathers. When she sits on her nest of 6-8 eggs, her camouflage colors go to work and make her nearly invisible from her surroundings. A potential predator may often pass by her as she sits motionless and in silence on her nest for a 30-day incubation period.

Week-old Sage-Grouse Chick with Transmitter, Courtesy & Copyright Todd Black, Photographer
Week-old Sage-Grouse Chick with Transmitter, Courtesy & Copyright Todd Black, Photographer
Dr. Terry Messmer, Utah State University Extension wildlife specialist and director of the Berryman Institute explains, “Greater sage-grouse do not have a muscular crop and are not able to digest hard seeds like other upland game species such as the ring-necked pheasant… they depend on sagebrush for their survival. In fact, during the winter sage-grouse survive by only eating sagebrush. They are the only species that can gain weight during the winter by [consuming] sagebrush.”

Biologists estimate that since the European settlement of North America there has been a 50% decline of the sage-grouse sagebrush habitat and population.

In the late 1990’s, in an effort to reverse this trend, Messmer through Utah State University entered into a collaboration with the State of Utah and numerous other stakeholders to develop a community-based conservation plan. Its purpose was to bring local communities, agencies, and researchers together to determine the best methods to preserve sage-grouse, their sagebrush habitats, and benefit the local community – without having to list it for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.

After two decades of hard work, the partners have witnessed a resurgence of the greater sage-grouse as their habitats have been protected, enhanced and expanded.

If you’d like to see greater sage-grouse, the largest populations are found in western Box Elder County, on Blue and Diamond Mountains in Uintah County in northeastern Utah, in Rich County, and on Parker Mountain in south central Utah. Just remember to bring your binoculars.

This is Shauna Leavitt for Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: All photos courtesy of and used with permission of Todd A. Black.
Text: Shauna Leavitt, USGS Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University

Additional Reading

To learn more about Utah sage-grouse conservation, please go to www.utahcbcp.org.