South Canyon Sage-Grouse

Male Grouse Closeup Courtesy & Copyright Nicki Frey, Photographer
Male Grouse Closeup
Courtesy & Copyright Nicki Frey, Photographer
At 3:00 a.m. on a frigid winter morning Nicki Frey, an Extension Associate Professor in the Department of Wildland Resources at USU, leads a group of new biologists who are trapping west of Bryce Canyon.

Cold, deep snow is all they can see on the valley floor.

The group is looking for the greater sage-grouse whose GPS transmitters are sending Frey signals – indicating they are nearby.

Grouse Tracks in Snow Courtesy & Copyright Nicki Frey, Photographer
Grouse Tracks in Snow
Courtesy & Copyright Nicki Frey, Photographer
For best results, researchers trap sage-grouse on moonless nights. The only light they have comes from the ATVs and headlamps.

Frey explains, “Southern Utah is the farthest southern location where greater sage-grouse live in the U.S. This valley is part of their winter habitat.”

In disbelief, one biologist responds, “It would be impossible for grouse to winter here.”

Documenting Grouse Trapping Courtesy & Copyright Nicki Frey, Photographer
Documenting Grouse Trapping
Courtesy & Copyright Nicki Frey, Photographer
The biologist’s statement is understandable, since research shows the winter habitat for greater sage-grouse is in areas where sagebrush is above the snow, so the grouse can hide underneath and receive protection from the brush and nutrition from its seeds.

Just as Frey begins to respond – 20 grouse burst out of the snow in front of them and fly away. “It scared us out of our skin.” Frey said.

“Everyone retreat! Everyone off of the snow!” Frey calls out.

Grouse Snow Angel and Cave Courtesy & Copyright Nicki Frey, Photographer
Grouse Snow Angel and Cave
Courtesy & Copyright Nicki Frey, Photographer
Then she and her colleague Lisa Church, a biologist from Bureau of Land Management get down on their hands and knees and begin searching for where the grouse were hiding. They see wing marks in the snow and a hole close by. With the use of a flashlight, they look down the hole and discover the birds came from a cave under the snow-covered sagebrush.

Going against the grain, the grouse have been living under the deep snow.

Sagebrush in this area only grow 1.5 to 3 feet, and since the snow can get up to 12 feet it’s not far into winter before the sagebrush is completely covered.

Surprisingly, the grouse have been able to adapt.

Frey explains, “They make these little snow caves and eat the sagebrush leaves inside the cave until they’re gone, then they pop out and pop back into the next sage brush cave and eat the leaves in there.”

Buried sagebrush isn’t the only obstacle the southern grouse have had to adapt to.

Grouse on Edge of New Treatment Courtesy & Copyright Nicki Frey, Photographer
Grouse on Edge of New Treatment
Courtesy & Copyright Nicki Frey, Photographer
Frey explains, “[In Northern Utah you have …nice rolling hills with lots of sage brush that seems to go on forever. In Southern Utah, we have little valleys of prime sage-grouse habitat, but they’re divided by rugged mountains and tree covered hills.”

This environment pushes the grouse to fly longer and further than they normally would.

They fly back and forth between the fragmented sagebrush habitats to find what they need to have a healthy population.

Having to constantly travel between these habitats takes a toll on the southern grouse.

This is an area Utah wildlife managers have helped the greater sage-grouse by removing pinyon-juniper forests which fragment their habitat.

According to Frey, “Anytime we [reconnect] habitat [in the southern region] the grouse use it immediately because they want to expand.”

The impact the Bureau of Land Management and Utah Division of Wildlife Resources projects have had on decreasing the forest barriers is astounding. “The numbers of sage-grouse have steadily increased every year.”

Frey’s research highlights this bird’s remarkable ability to adapt to southern Utah’s climate.

By using the research to assist with management planning, Utah can continue removing barriers for grouse survival and ensure their continued presence in our wildlands.

This is Shauna Leavitt for Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Principal Investigator: Nicki Frey
Photos: Courtesy and Copyright Nicki Frey
Text: Shauna Leavitt

Sources & Additional Reading

Sixty In-stream Habitat Structures in Four Days: Demonstrating Creek Restoration Techniques

In-stream Habitat Structures: Crews from multiple agencies gather in the encroaching pinyon-juniper forest to begin building the in-stream structures in Birch Creek, UT. Courtesy & Copyright Shauna Leavitt, Photographer
Crews from multiple agencies gather in the encroaching pinyon-juniper forest to begin building the in-stream structures in Birch Creek, UT.
Courtesy & Copyright Shauna Leavitt, Photographer
The job of building 60 in-stream habitat structures in one week seems like a daunting task. But an energetic group of 16 natural resource managers, researchers and volunteers, finish all 60 in four days.

The crew members come from numerous agencies including the Bureau of Land Management, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, the National Forest Service, interagency firefighting hotshots, and Utah State University.
The purpose of the project is to demonstrate how effective various in-stream structures are at improving habitat for Bonneville cutthroat trout and restoring riparian habitat on a two-mile stretch of Utah’s Birch Creek, located southeast of Beaver, Utah.

In-stream Habitat Structures: Crews from multiple agencies building in-stream structures to restore Birch Creek. Courtesy & Copyright Shauna Leavitt, Photographer
Crews from multiple agencies building in-stream structures to restore Birch Creek. Courtesy & Copyright Shauna Leavitt, Photographer
At one time Birch Creek was rich with beaver, riparian vegetation and diverse in-stream habitat making it an ideal home for Bonneville Cutthroat trout and sage grouse.

The beaver are now gone, and the once woody riparian vegetation has been largely replaced by an encroaching pinyon-juniper forest. The creek is one narrow ditch-like channel.

According to Joseph Wheaton, Associate Professor in the Department of Watershed Sciences and Principal Investigator, “Without the help [of man-made structures or beaver dams] recovery from this type of degradation could take centuries.”

The crews built a variety of simple structures, some designed to mimic beaver dams and others to imitate natural accumulations of wood and debris jams.

In-stream Habitat Structures: An in-stream structure build from juniper branches, cobble, gravel and mud. Courtesy & Copyright Shauna Leavitt, Photographer
An in-stream structure build from juniper branches, cobble, gravel and mud. Courtesy & Copyright Shauna Leavitt, Photographer
The largest structures are built with an excavator. The machine pulls up large junipers and drops them in the stream so the water can run over, around and through the juniper and its root wads.
Wheaton explains, ”By putting the [Juniper} in the channel we’re making habitat for fish and at the same time raising water tables, which support a whole range of riparian vegetation and wetland vegetation.”
Another structure is the Beaver Dam Analogues (BDAs), which is a simple, cost-effective method of using posts and juniper branches then adding rocks and mud to partially plug up the deliberately leaky dams, designed to be passable to fish.

In-stream Habitat Structures: A pool forming behind a newly build in-stream habitat structure. Courtesy & Copyright Shauna Leavitt, Photographer
A pool forming behind a newly build in-stream habitat structure. Courtesy & Copyright Shauna Leavitt, Photographer
Crews see immediate improvements after each structure is built. New pools form, old-channels that haven’t seen water for decades begin to flow parallel to the main channel, and formerly dry floodplains become wet sponges and wetlands.

These wet sponges will release their water later in the season providing additional moisture in dryer times.
Justin Jimenez, Fisheries Riparian Program Manager with Bureau of Land Management explains why these pools are essential, “We’re working to improve the habitat for native fish by increasing the pool frequency and depth. The depth provides thermal cover.” Which is cooler for summer rearing habitat, and warmer for winter survival.
Before this project began, downstream water-rights holders were concerned about how these structures would impact water for irrigation.

In response to their concerns, Gary O’Brien, a Geomorphologist in the Fluvial Habitat Center at USU installed a common measuring device called a V-notch weir at the top and bottom the of the two-mile stretch to measure the discharge of the stream.

According to O’Brien, “once all the structures fill their pools and the system adjusts for infiltration, we expect the top and the bottom weirs to measure a relatively consistent discharge.”
By the addition of a pressure transducer in the pool behind the weirs, O’Brien will have continuous flow of data at every stage.

With these readings the ranchers can be kept up-to-date on the impact the structures are having on the water resources. The agencies have agreed to remove the structures if gaging shows the structures are negatively impacting downstream water users.

Throughout the project, UDWR, BLM and the USFS will be monitoring cutthroat trout response, and USU will be monitoring how the habitat responds and changes through time.

By monitoring the responses, managers and researchers will be able to make more informed decisions about which types and mix of structures can be most effectively used to restore similar streams cheaply across the state.

This is Shauna Leavitt for Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy and Copyright Shauna Leavitt
Text: Shauna Leavitt

Sources & Additional Reading

Streams & Rivers Restoration, Restoration Center, NOAA Habitat Conservation, National Marine Fisheries Service,
http://habitat.noaa.gov/restoration/techniques/srrestoration.html

White, Courtney, Thinking Like a Creek, originally published by The Carbon Pilgrim, March 6, 2014,
http://resilience.org/stories/2014-03-06/thinking-like-a-creek/

Stream Restoration, United States Department of Agriculture(USDA), Natural Resources Conservation Service(NRCS),
https://nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/water/manage/restoration/

Rubenstein, Marcus, CPESC, Stream Restoration, Purpose Practice and Methods, Southeast Storm Water Association,
http://seswa.org/assets/Services/Annual-Conference/2010/11%20-%20stream%20restoration%20%20methods%20purpose%20and%20practices%20rubenstein.pdf

Weber River’s Bluehead Sucker Population

Bluehead Sucker Courtesy & © Bryan Maloney, Photographer
Bluehead Sucker
Courtesy & © Bryan Maloney, Photographer
Along the bottom of the Weber River lives a genetically-distinct fish called the bluehead sucker.
Its head is colored in dusty shades of blue, brown and gold. From the gills to the tail the fish has a pattern of gold, diamond-shaped scales with dark brown borders, which grow larger and more distinct closer to the tail.
Its large rounded nose overhangs the papillae-covered lips and mouth, which are set low to allow the fish to eat algae off surfaces.

Bluehead Sucker Courtesy  & © Bryan Maloney, Photographer
Bluehead Sucker
Courtesy & © Bryan Maloney, Photographer
Another distinguishing feature is its large size the adult bluehead suckers can reach a length of 16-18 inches.
One of the main benefits of the bluehead sucker in the Weber River, is its place in the food web, primarily eating algae. The cartilage scraping edges of its jaws make it easy to feed off rocks and other objects where algae may build up.

The suckers obtain nutrients from the algae, and grow to be good bait and forage fish.
Dr. Phaedra Budy, Unit Leader for the U.S Geological Survey Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit at USU said, “When both bluehead suckers and trout exist together, the suckers help take the predator pressure off of the game fish, and its feeding habits offer little competition with trout.”

Bluehead Sucker Courtesy  & © Bryan Maloney, Photographer
Bluehead Sucker
Courtesy & © Bryan Maloney, Photographer
This native species has intrinsic value to the river because of its ability to indicate the health of the riverine ecosystem. But changes in the river have created challenges for the sucker by limiting its habitat.
The river no longer has the freedom to meander across the landscape since it is confined by rail tracks, highways, and urban development for much of its reach. There are also two 150-foot dams and reservoirs in its path. These changes have altered both the physical and thermal characteristics and decreased the spawning habitat of the sucker.

Bluehead Sucker Survey, Ferron Creek, Ferron Canyon, Manti-La Sal National Forest, Emery County, Utah, Courtesy & © Bryan Maloney, Photographer
Bluehead Sucker Survey, Ferron Creek, Ferron Canyon, Manti-La Sal National Forest, Emery County, Utah, Courtesy & © Bryan Maloney, Photographer
Bryan Maloney, a former graduate student in Dr. Budy’s lab, recently completed his Master’s on the bluehead sucker. His research included determining what spawning habitat the bluehead suckers use.
To do this, Maloney compared the spawning bluehead suckers in Weber River to the ones in the pristine Ferron Creek. This comparison was essential since he needed to see what the spawning suckers chose in the unaltered streams.
Budy explains, if we only studied Weber it would be similar to observing a student who rented a really bad apartment for a semester because he was broke – then saying, “Oh, this must be what he likes to live in,” and not recognizing he would have chosen something much better if he had the resources.

By comparing the two rivers, Maloney discovered the spawning suckers use wide channels with plenty of pools, gravel, and cobble. Once the eggs hatch, the juvenile suckers use nearshore locations where the water is slow and deep and the young suckers find it easier to hide, eat, and grow.

Bluehead Sucker Netting Survey Courtesy  & © Bryan Maloney, Photographer
Bluehead Sucker Netting Survey
Courtesy & © Bryan Maloney, Photographer
According to Maloney, “These diverse habitat components are critical for spawning adult and growing juvenile bluehead suckers. Restoring them to the Weber River, will assist in recovering this imperiled population.”
Although Weber River is limited in these habitat characteristics, the future of the riverine ecosystem is optimistic due to the formation of the Weber River Partnership.

The agencies in the partnership include Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Trout Unlimited, Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, both the Weber River and Provo River Water Users Associations, City of Ogden, PacifiCorp, Bureau of Reclamation, and the Davis and Weber Counties Canal Company.

Plans are underway for the fish habitat restoration in the Weber River, which will be a big help to the future of bluehead suckers, and whatever steps are taken to benefit habitat for suckers will also benefit the native trout.

This is Shauna Leavitt for Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy and Copyright Bryan Maloney
Text: Shauna Leavitt

Sources & Additional Reading

Bluehead Sucker, Utah Conservation Data Center, Utah Division of Wildlife Management, https://dwrcdc.nr.utah.gov/rsgis2/search/Display.asp?FlNm=catodisc

Thompson, Paul D., Bonneville Cutthroat Trout and Bluehead Sucker in the Weber River: Endangered Species Act Implications, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Jun 15, 2015, https://www.slideshare.net/PaulThompson47/weber-river-partnership-native-species-presentation

Webber, P. Aaron, Thompson, Paul D. and Buddy, Phaedra, Status and Structure of two Populations of the Bluehead Sucker(Catostomus discobolus) in the Weber River, Utah, http://www.usu.edu/fel/publications/pdf/Webber_et_al_%202012_BLH_Weber.pdf

Budy, Phaedra; Thiede, Gary P; Mckay, Samuel; Weber River metapopulation structure and source-sink dynamics of native fishes, 2011-2013, http://www.usu.edu/fel/research/weber-river/

Blueheads and Bonnevilles Restoration Project Inspires Weber River Partnership, National Fish Habitat Partnership, October 19, 2016, http://www.fishhabitat.org/news/blueheads-and-bonnevilles-restoration-project-inspires-weber-river-partners

Weber River Partnership Protects World-Class Fishery, Paul Thompson, Guest Blogger, Utah Department of Environmental Quality, https://deq.utah.gov/news/tag/bluehead-sucker

Trout vs. Chub

Trout vs. Chub: Graduate student Lisa Winters holds a mature tiger trout. Trout grow quickly when they are on a Utah chub diet.
Graduate student Lisa Winters holds a mature tiger trout. Trout grow quickly when they are on a Utah chub diet.
Scofield Reservoir (a 2,815-acre, man-made lake), has, “Historically [been] the most important trout fishery in Utah’s southeastern region…” says Dr. Phaedra Budy, Unit Leader for the U.S. Geological Survey Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit at USU.

The trout (tiger, cutthroat and rainbow) now share the reservoir with high densities of Utah chub. The reservoir is thick with chub – a carp-like fish that matures quickly and is extremely prolific. At times chub have outnumbered trout in Scofield Reservoir nine to one.

Trout vs. Chub: The competitors: trout vs Utah chub in Scofield Reservoir
The competitors: trout vs Utah chub in Scofield Reservoir
The Utah Chub is native to the state, as indicated by its name, but it wasn’t observed in the lake until 2005.

The main concern for fisheries managers is whether or not the growing population of chub will compete with sport fish for food and/or space, as has been observed elsewhere, or whether chub can be effectively controlled by trout populations.

Trout vs. Chub: Undergraduate student Konrad Hafen holds a mature Tiger trout which preys on the Utah chub.
Undergraduate student Konrad Hafen holds a mature Tiger trout which preys on the Utah chub.
In an effort to answer these questions, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (UDWR) commissioned a multi-year research project with Dr. Phaedra Budy’s Fish Ecology Lab in the Department of Watershed Sciences, Quinney College of Natural Resources to determine the predator and forage relationships between the trout and chub.

Fishing on Scofield Reservoir
Fishing on Scofield Reservoir
Based on this USU research, one observed benefit of chub is the impact it has on the growth of trout that eat it. After stocked tiger and cutthroat trout reach a certain size (usually a year after being stocked) they switch to a diet of fish and begin eating the chub.

According to Gary Thiede, fishery biologist in the Department of Watershed Sciences, once the trout begin eating chub they grow rapidly. Tiger trout in particular grow to very large sizes eating a diet of 100% chub.

Sunset on Scofield Reservoir
Sunset on Scofield Reservoir
The chub may, therefore, be beneficial to the reservoir’s ecosystem if the numbers are controlled.

DWR has used three trout species to control the population of chub and also enforced a catch and release rule for larger cutthroat trout so the biggest predators would remain in the reservoir. But since chub can live up to 30 years, some of the adults have reached a size where they are too big for trout to eat.

Graduate student Lisa Winters holds a tiger trout likely stocked earlier that spring. It takes at least a year before the stocked fish grow big enough to begin preying on the chub.
Graduate student Lisa Winters holds a tiger trout likely stocked earlier that spring. It takes at least a year before the stocked fish grow big enough to begin preying on the chub.
In 2016, it became obvious the public would no longer tolerate waiting for the trouts’ appetite to decrease the chub population.

After an extensive public input process, of gathering over 2500 public angler surveys, a committee was formed comprising of Scofield residents, sportsmen organizations, and wildlife agencies to develop a management plan, which would provide DWR recommendations to control the Utah chub population and create a sustainable, high-quality fishery at Scofield.

Research technicians pull in a net full of Utah chub.
Research technicians pull in a net full of Utah chub.
The plan was reviewed and approved by the Central and Southeast Regional Advisory Councils.

The first step in the plan will be DWR introducing three new fish to Scofield: wiper (a hybrid of white and striped bass), tiger muskie and triploid walleye.

According to Chris Wood, the southeastern regional supervisor, “All three grow quickly and have an appetite for the Utah chub.”

Justin Hart, the DWR’s aquatics manager in southeastern Utah said, we don’t want to completely eliminate [the chub], but we do need to get their biomass down. We plan to use the chub to grow some big fish.

Once the chub population has dropped, DWR will resume stocking the rainbow trout – a favorite among the state anglers.

If the plan is successful, the chub population will remain at a sustainable level and be a benefit, instead of a burden to the Scofield Reservoir trout populations.

This is Shauna Leavitt for Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy and Copyright
Photos: Courtesy and Copyright
Text: Shauna Leavitt

Sources & Additional Reading

Leavitt, Shauna, Trout vs. chub, Dueling it out in Scofield Reservoir, https://wildlife.utah.gov/blog/2014/trout-vs-chub/