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

Rufous Hummingbirds

Rufus Hummingbird Courtesy US FWS, Roy W, Lowe, Photographer
Rufus Hummingbird
Courtesy US FWS,
Roy W. Lowe, Photographer

Who doesn’t love hummingbirds! I’m always amazed how a tiny life form with a brain smaller than a pea is capable of such amazing intelligence and behaviors. In fact, a hummingbird’s brain is proportionally larger in size to their body than that of any other bird. And like the corvid family (jays, magpies, and crows), research has found that hummers have an amazing memory.

Now is the seasonal peak for hummingbird activity with young birds fresh off the nest. One of my favorites, the migrating rufous hummingbird, may join the milieu on their long distance marathon as they make their way from as far north as Alaska to winter in Mexico.

The feistiest hummingbird in North America, the brilliant orange male and the green-and-orange female are relentless attackers at flowers and feeders. These fearless competitors will challenge even the largest hummingbirds of the Southwest, which can be double their weight, and often win the contest! Rufous Hummingbirds are wide-ranging, and breed farther north than any other hummingbird. Look for them in spring in California, summer in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, and now in the Rocky Mountains as they make their annual circuit of the West.

Rufous Hummers have the hummingbird gift for fast, darting flight and pinpoint maneuverability. Like other hummers, they eat insects as well as nectar, taking them from spider webs or catching them in midair.

Rufous Hummingbirds breed in open areas, yards, parks, and forests up to timberline. On migration they pass through mountain meadows as high as 12,600 feet where nectar-rich, tubular flowers are blooming. Winter habitat in Mexico includes shrubby openings and oak-pine forests at middle to high elevation.

They may take up residence (at least temporarily) in your garden if you grow hummingbird flowers or put out feeders. But beware! They may make life difficult for any other species that visit your yard. If you live on their migration route, the visiting Rufous is likely to move on after just a week or two.

Regarding feeders, make sugar water mixtures with about one cup of sugar per quart of water. Food coloring is unnecessary; table sugar is the best choice. Change the water before it grows cloudy or discolored and remember that during hot weather, sugar water ferments rapidly to produce toxic alcohol. If you are among those who have these dazzling sprites of amazing life stop by, consider yourself fortunate indeed!

This is Jack Greene reading for “Wild About Utah”

Credits:

Pictures: Courtesy US FWS, Roy W Lowe, Photographer
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Strand, Holly, Hummingbirds in Utah, Wild About Utah, UPR/Bridgerland Audubon Society, Sept 3, 2009, http://wildaboututah.org/hummingbirds-in-utah/

Kervin, Linda, Gardening for Hummingbirds, Wild About Utah, UPR/Bridgerland Audubon Society, June 5, 2014, http://wildaboututah.org/hummingbirds-in-utah/

Liberatore, Andrea, Hummingbird Nests, Wild About Utah, UPR/Bridgerland Audubon Society, June 14, 2012, http://wildaboututah.org/hummingbird-nests/

Hummingbird Society, http://www.hummingbirdsociety.org/index.php

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.

Bird Benefits

Western Tanager Courtesy & Copyright © 2010 Michael Fish
Western Tanager
Courtesy & Copyright © 2010
Michael Fish
Birds may not be as exciting as certain athletic events or blockbuster films, but have you ever considered the many benefits they provide to ecosystems and humans? They control insect and rodent populations; they eat weed seeds; they pollenate crops, flowers, fruits. They are a major food source, consider chickens, turkeys, game birds, water fowl, as well as their eggs. Falcons and hawks can help humans hunt for food. They are companion pets for many people…parakeets, canaries, parrots. They inspired the construction of airplanes.
Bird Houses Courtesy & Copyright Ron Hellstern
Bird Houses
Courtesy & Copyright Ron Hellstern
Pigeons were often used to transport messages and medicines during war. Feathers were used as insulation for clothing and bedding as well as fashion accessories. Estimates of 20 billion dollars annually is spent by birdwatchers for travel, seed and feeders, binoculars and scopes, and so forth. Contests and competitions are done every year for racing pigeons and state fairs with a variety of species. They are beautiful subjects for photography and art forms. They are agents of seed dispersal, and some also feed on animal carcasses. Their waste products are used as agricultural fertilizer, and they are indicators of environmental health. In the 1990s, Mexico City’s air pollution problem was so bad birds fell dead from the sky. This initiated steps to improve air quality. There’s also peaceful serenity in listening to bird songs. Although some people may not appreciate the pre-sunrise songs of robins.

Two American Robins and a Northern Flicker Drinking from a Bird Bath Copyright © 2012 Linda Kervin
Two American Robins and a
Northern Flicker Drinking from a Bird Bath
Copyright © 2012 Linda Kervin
So what can you do to help improve the bird habitat in your area? First, provide water year-round. A simple bird bath is a great start. Change water every 2 to 3 days in warm weather to prevent mosquito larvae from hatching, and use a heater in the winter. Place the water container about 10 feet from dense shrubs or other cover that predators might use. Select a variety of native plants to offer year-round food in the form of seeds, berries, nuts, and nectar. Try to recreate the plant ecosystem native to your area. Evergreen trees and shrubs provide excellent cover through all seasons if they are part of your local ecosystem. If your landscaping is complete, then put in bird feeders. Remove invasive plants from your wildlife habitat. Many out-compete the native species favored by birds, insects, and other wildlife. To find a list of invasive plants in your state, go to the cooperative extension office in your local area.

A red-cockaded woodpecker has dinner outside its nesting cavity. Photo by USFWS.
A red-cockaded woodpecker has dinner outside its nesting cavity. Photo by USFWS.
Eliminate insecticides in your yard. Insects are the primary source of food for many bird species and are an important source of protein and fats for growing juvenile birds. Depending on your circumstances, leave standing dead trees, that are also known as snags, and they provide cavity dwelling places for birds to raise young and a source of insects for food. Many species will also seek shelter from bad weather inside of hollowed-out trees. Inspect your snags regularly though to make sure they do not present any safety hazards. Put out nesting boxes. Make sure the boxes have ventilation holes and drainage holes, and don’t use a box with a perch, because certain species are known to sit on a nesting box perch and peck at other birds inside the box.

And again, as a reminder, please keep your cats indoors. Domestic cats kill millions of birds every year. Birds help us, let’s help them.

This is Ron Helstern with Wild About Utah.

Credits:

Images:
                Western Tanager, Courtesy & Copyright Mike Fish, Photographer
                Birdbath, Courtesy & Copyright © 2012 Linda Kervin
                Woodpecker, Courtesy US FWS
Text:     Ron Hellstern

Additional Reading

What Do Birds Do for Us?, Barry Yeoman, National Audubon, 13 Apr 2013, http://www.audubon.org/news/what-do-birds-do-us

The Benefits of Birds, Dr Rin Porter, National Audubon, 27 Mar 2015, http://www.thingscouldbeworse.org/home/benefits-birds/

Burning for the birds at Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge, Josh OConnor, regional fuels specialist, March 21, 2014
https://www.fws.gov/southeast/articles/burning-for-the-birds-at-piedmont-national-wildlife-refuge