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.

Beaver–Helping Keep Water on Drying Lands

Beaver, Castor canadensis, Courtesy US FWS, Steve Hillebrand, photographer
Beaver
Castor canadensis
Courtesy US FWS,
Steve Hillebrand, photographer
Beginning as early as the 17th century, beavers have struggled to find safe places to build their homes.

Initially, hunters trapped beaver extensively to keep up with the popular beaver fashions in Europe.

Then as settlers began moving west, they considered the beavers annoying because of their tendency to cause flooding and damage trees – so the trapping continued.

However, today in many parts of the American West, the beaver’s 400-year-old struggle is fading, because of their ability to keep water on dry land in an efficient manner.

While beavers may not be welcome in most city limits, ranchers and wildlife managers are re-introducing them to rural areas where the benefits of their dams far outweigh the inconveniences.

Tanner Ranch Courtesy and Copyright Eric Thacker, Photographer
Grouse Creek Area
Location of the Tanner Ranch
Courtesy and Copyright Eric Thacker, Photographer
One such place is the Della Ranches in west Box Elder County, where the Tanner family has been ranching for six generations. The ranch is located in a remote part of the state and has some of the best intact sagebrush habitat in Utah with strong populations of sage grouse and mule deer.

Most of the precipitation on the ranch, which averages less than 12 inches a year, comes as snow during winter and rain in April and May. By the end of the summer, the majority of the streams have dried up.

Having a sustainable water supply is an ongoing concern for the Tanners. They are searching for ways to keep water on the land throughout the summer.

Jay Tanner explains, “I considered building a reservoir or pond but it would be expensive, require quite a bit of maintenance, and permits. Beaver dams on the other hand are inexpensive, sustainable, and self-maintained.”

Kent Sorenson, habitat biologist from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources described the financial benefit of the beavers, “[When beaver manage the dams] our operation and maintenance costs go to zero — they do all the work. They are 24/7 – 365-day maintenance crews that do not require a Corps of Engineers 404 permit.

Installing a pressure transducer (inside the white pvc pipe) which is used to measure flow. Restoration treatments are assessed through monitoring water flows. Courtesy and Copyright Scott Shahverdian, Photographer
Installing a pressure transducer (inside the white pvc pipe) which is used to measure flow. Restoration treatments are assessed through monitoring water flows.
Courtesy and Copyright Scott Shahverdian, Photographer
When Jay Tanner learned of the potential benefit of beavers, he drove to Utah State University and met with scientists and researchers who had experienced success in restoring beavers in the west.

Eric Thacker, Rangeland Management Extension Specialist at USU said, “A beaver dam provides a buffer or mitigation for drought.”

Once the dams are established, they keep the water on the land. This is beneficial to fish, wildlife and livestock.

Sage-grouse hens like to gather with their chicks in the wet meadows by beaver dams, where they can find plenty of insects and vegetation for their chicks.

After further discussions with USU, the Tanners entered into a multi-year partnership with the Quinney College of Natural Resources and Utah Division of Wildlife Resources to reintroduce beaver to their ranch.

Currently, all involved are working to make the streams and surrounding area appropriate for new beaver families. Once the areas are ready and the correct permits are in place, UDWR will capture a beaver pair, keep them in quarantine for the appropriate amount of time then introduce the beavers to a stream on the Tanner Ranch

Reintroducing a beaver couple instead of a single beaver is essential for the success of the project. They are social critters. Beaver will leave the location and go searching for a partner if they are not re-introduced with one.

In an established beaver dam, you will likely find monogamous parents with their babies called “kits”, their yearlings, and extended families.

Joseph Wheaton, Associate Professor in the department of Watershed Sciences and Principal Investigator on the project said, “If [this] project is successful, the implications are huge for instream and riparian restoration throughout the state of Utah as beaver are potentially an extremely cost-effective form of restoration…”

This is Shauna Leavitt for Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photo: Courtesy US FWS, Steve Hillebrand, photographer
Photo: CCourtesy and Copyright Scott Shahverdian, Photographer
Photo: Courtesy and Copyright Eric Thacker, Photographer
Text: Shauna Leavitt, USGS Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University

Additional Reading

North American Beaver, Castor canadensis, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Wildlife Notebook Series No. 24,
http://digitallibrary.utah.gov/awweb/awarchive?type=download&item=56529

UTAH BEAVER MANAGEMENT PLAN 2010–2020, Developed with the Beaver Advisory Committee, DWR Publication 09-29, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, 2010, https://wildlife.utah.gov/furbearer/pdf/beaver_plan_2010-2020.pdf

WATS 6860 – Partnering with Beaver in Restoration Design, University Catalog 2017-2018, Utah State University, http://catalog.usu.edu/preview_course_nopop.php?catoid=12&coid=93002

Beaver: Restoration liaison between riparian and upland systems. Joe Wheaton, Assistant Professor, Utah …, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=62A3RqL7Xp8

WEBINAR: Cheap and Cheerful Stream Riparian Restoration with Beaver. Joe Wheaton …
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m1uysDrOI_w

Beaver Restoration Workshop, Partnering with Beaver in Restoration, http://beaver.joewheaton.org/

Webinar: Cheap & Cheerful Stream Restoration – With Beaver? http://beaver.joewheaton.org/beaver-links/beaver-news-annoucements/webinarcheapcheerfulstreamrestoration-withbeaver

Science Unwrapped Talk by Joe on Beaver
http://beaver.joewheaton.org/beaver-links/beaver-news-annoucements/scienceunwrappedtalkbyjoeonbeaver

Videos & Movies
http://beaver.joewheaton.org/beaver-links/videos-movies

Joe Wheaton – Beaver: Restoration liaison between riparian and upland systems
https://forestry.usu.edu/videos-conferences-webinars/conferences/restoring-west-conference-2013/joe-wheaton

Dr. Joseph Michael Wheaton, Watershed Sciences, Associate Professor, https://qcnr.usu.edu/directory/wheaton_joseph
Utah Water Watch, Beaver Monitoring App, http://extension.usu.edu/utahwaterwatch/citizenscience/beavermonitoringapp/

Beaver Dam Mapping App Now Available for Citizen Scientists, http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/environment/item/148-citizen-scientists-can-now-use-an-app-to-help-map-beaver-dams-in-utah

The Passion of Penstemaniacs

White River beardtongue Penstemon albifluvis Courtesy and Copyright Robert Fitts, Photographer
White River beardtongue
Penstemon albifluvis
Courtesy and Copyright Robert Fitts, Photographer
Penstemaniacs, the name affectionately given to members of the American Penstemon Society, will be gathering from all parts of the world to meet in Vernal, Utah, this June.

While here, they’ll be searching the Uinta Mountains for penstemons native to that area.
If you’ve ever hiked in the rugged, dry areas of Utah and come upon a vibrant flower with hues of red, purple, or blue, and wondered how such a beautiful plant could survive in such a desolate place – you may have found one of Utah’s native penstemons.

Over 100 full species or sub-species of the plant are native to the beehive state. They thrive in hot conditions and require very little water.

Robert Fitts hunting penstemons in the Unitas Courtesy and Copyright Robert Fitts, photographer
Robert Fitts
hunting penstemons
in the Unitas
Courtesy and Copyright Robert Fitts, photographer
According to Robert Fitts, Botany Researcher for Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, “Penstemons have adapted to very harsh places. Where other plants [couldn’t] grow they have grown.”
The common name for penstemon is beardtongue, due to the staminode that grows out of the center of the flower and looks like a hairy tongue.

In the spring, hikers can see beardtongue growing on mountain ledges, budding on desert floors, and rising from oil shale formations. Even people stuck in the city can see these native flowers blossom along urban roads since Utah Division of Transportation includes penstemon seeds in the mixtures used to restore vegetation along new and reconstructed roads.

Dr. Noel Homgren, Senior Curator Emeritus at the New York Botanical Garden explains, “Although penstemon distribution [stretches from] southern Alaska to northern Guatemala; Utah is the Center of Diversity for penstemon. There are more species of penstemon in Utah than any other state in the Union.”

Graham's beardtongue Penstemon grahamii Courtsey and Copyright Robert Fitts, photographer
Graham’s beardtongue
Penstemon grahamii
Courtsey and Copyright Robert Fitts, photographer
To identify penstemon or beardtongue, ask these three questions while examining the plant: First, does the plant have opposite leaves growing out of the stem; second, is the flower a tubular shape, and finally, inside the flower are there four filaments surrounding one furry filament? If the answer is yes to all three of these questions, you have found and identified a penstemon.

With the increasing popularity of water-wise landscapes, many native penstemons can now be purchased in flower shops. You can have a little bit of native Utah growing right in your own back yard.
Firecracker and Wasatch are two popular penstemon choices. Both thrive in dry landscapes and require no fertilizer. Fertilizer actually shortens the life of penstemons.

Wasatch Penstemon and the start of Firecracker Penstemon in photographer's water-wise backyard landscape Courtesy & Copyright Dr Tom Edwards, Photographer
Wasatch Penstemon and the start of Firecracker Penstemon in photographer’s water-wise backyard landscape
Courtesy & Copyright Dr Tom Edwards, Photographer
The Firecracker blooms in mid spring and is cold hardy, it has a bright red tubular flower which hangs slightly downward – both these characteristics attract hummingbirds which can add entertainment to any backyard.

“If you’ve ever seen a hummingbird war where two or more hummingbirds fight over a plant it’s fascinating sight.”
The Wasatch Beardtongue has rich colored flowers with hues of purple, blue and lavender that bloom upward. It’s a favorite for the bumblebee. If you come close to these flowering plants you can hear the low humming of the bees hard at work.

Some native penstemons are quite rare and found in very limited areas. Two of these are the Graham and White River penstemons, found only in the oil shale outcrops of the Uintah Mountains.

To help preserve these rare flowering plants, Utah’s Department of Natural Resources, through the Division of Wildlife Resources, partnered with USU to use modeling as an aid to determine where the rare flowers grow.

By using survey data from the Utah Heritage Program, which tells where the rare plants have been found, the data is entered into the model and fined tuned so it can more accurately tell the researchers other locations where the rare plants may be.

Graham's beardtongue Penstemon grahamii In Uinta Shale Courtsey and Copyright Robert Fitts, photographer
Graham’s beardtongue
Penstemon grahamii
In Uinta Shale
Courtsey and Copyright Robert Fitts, photographer
Mindy Wheeler, the Rare Plant Conservation Coordinator from UDWR explains, “it’s as if we become detectives.” We gather the clues for the model, then go out into the areas where the model tells us the plants may be found.
Often when I come upon a rare pentsemon, I’m so relieved and happy that I drop to my knees and with my hands in the dirt examine it closely.

“Every piece of data we gather goes back into the model to refine it.”

Dr. Tom Edwards, Research Scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, professor in the Department of Wildland Resources, and Principal investigator on the project, said – once we have the models and understand where the rare plants are, it allows management agencies to work with their stakeholders (who include tribal nations, energy groups and ranchers) to decrease the impacts they have on these rare plants.

Wheeler adds, “It’s been helpful to find…rare penstemons which are a conservation priority because it either helps with conservation actions or in a best case scenario finds enough plants so they no longer need as much protection.”

Utah residents who would like to add penstamon to their yards, can go to the Utah Native Plant Society’s website, to find the closest supplier in their area.

Edwards adds, “Penstemons bloom at different times of the year so if you plan carefully you can have vibrant rotating color in your gardens all summer long.”

To become a Penstemaniac simply go to The American Penstemon Society website and join.

This is Shauna Leavitt for Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photo: Courtesy & Copyright Dr Tom Edwards
Photo: Courtesy & Copyright Dr Robert Fitts
Text: Shauna Leavitt, USGS Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University

Sources & Additional Reading

American Penstemon Society: http://penstemons.org/

Utah Native Plant Society: http://www.unps.org/index.html

Loyola, Deena, Penstemon Conservation Agreement Finalized, Trust Lands Administration, State of Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, Aug 6, 2014, https://trustlands.utah.gov/penstemon-conservation-agreement-finalized/

Graham’s and White River Beartongues, Species, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Mountain-Prairie Region, https://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/species/plants/2utahbeardtongues/

Penstemon grahamii D.D. Keck, Uinta Basin beardtongue, Plants Database, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=PEGR6