Fire

Boise Interagency Fire Center entrance sign. Courtesy of National Interagency Fire Center.
Boise Interagency Fire Center entrance sign. Courtesy of National Interagency Fire Center.
The haze above Cache Valley begins to dissipate after weeks of hovering low and thick like a winter inversion, even as the Goring and Hansel Point Fires rage on just west of the Wellsville Mountains that bookend the valley. Both blazes, just two of the more than ten active fires in the state, are still less than 50% contained. Farmers and ranchers in Box Elder County are now doubling as volunteer fire crews.

To date, the National Interagency Fire Center has reported over 5.1 million acres burned in nearly 39,000 individual fires throughout the Western US and small pockets farther east. According to the agency’s website, “more than 28,000 firefighters and support personnel are [currently] working on 100 large fires that have burned 1.6 million acres.” And so goes another fire season.

Night view of burning pine trees and power pole. Courtesy of National Interagency Fire Center.
Night view of burning pine trees and power pole. Courtesy of National Interagency Fire Center.
It’s a hard thing to play spectator to—these yearly displays of destruction. It’s an even harder thing to draw a silver lining around, considering the potential for loss of land, property, and sometimes even life that each new fire season brings; but that’s what I’ll try to do here. As part of a recent Utah Master Naturalist course in which I participated with USU’s Extension Office, I was reminded of the extreme import of fire here in the West.
Ecological processes are complex and dynamic; and, here in the West, fire is a critical piece to that constantly morphing puzzle. Let’s consider a mature forest, for instance. Here in Utah, one might consist of large, shade tolerant spruce and fir groves. Free of any human intervention, these groves would occasionally succumb to wildfires which would act as cleaning crew for the collection of understory growth and dead plant material that litters the forest floor.

Such phenomena accomplish two tasks: one, frequent fires reboot the process of ecological succession wherein grasses, shrubs, and early succession species such as aspen trees and lodgepole pines take up the yolk of repopulating the forest; this leads to the second achievement of regular, unsuppressed wildfires—forest health. A dynamic, changing forest full of actively diversifying plant species are less susceptible to pests and disease. Wildfires mean forest longevity. Moreover, frequent fires limit understory fuels and produce low-intensity burns that are less likely to completely destroy a forest.

In the late 19th/early 20th century, though, this was a hard pill to swallow, and understandably so. Fire, as I said earlier, can be a threat to land, property, and life. Thus, we inherited a policy of fire suppression throughout the Western United States which, though it may sound fruitful, has accomplished quite the opposite of our intentions. Fire suppression allows understory ladder fuels to accumulate in quantities that, when finally ignite, produce high-intensity blazes that are consummate in both their size and scope; they burn quickly and exhaustively. This presents problems on its own, but climate change also promises to lengthen our fire season by as many as three months in some areas of the West.

So what does that mean for those of us who make our home in the Western states? Well, first we must remind ourselves each season that fire is indeed part of the ecology of the place we call home, and with that in mind take steps to insulate ourselves from its most dangerous characteristics. This includes creating and respecting buffer zones between human settlements and forests that are particularly susceptible to wildfires. Californians know this all too well by now. Additionally, responsible behavior when playing in or travelling through the Western wildlands goes a long way to preventing wildfires. Being aware of fire bans and mediation efforts is the best way to meet Smokey’s expectations.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy US National Park Service
Text: Josh Boling, 2018

Sources & Additional Reading

Utah Fire Info Box

Williams, Carter, Update on Fires in Utah, KSL.com, Jun 25th, 2018, https://www.ksl.com/?nid=148&sid=46349568

Piute Farms Waterfall on Lower San Juan – a Tributary of Lake Powell

Piute Farms Waterfall on the San Juan River, An Example of Superimposition Courtesy & Copyright Mark McKinstry, Photographer
Piute Farms Waterfall on the San Juan River, An Example of Superimposition
Courtesy & Copyright Mark McKinstry, Photographer

Piute Farms waterfall is a 25-ft high cascade that has formed along the San Juan River and spans its entire width. The location is a remote spot in an upstream arm of Lake Powell reservoir.

To reach the falls it takes a rough two-hour drive from Mexican Hat, or a 100-mile-boat ride from Bullfrog Marina in Lake Powell.

It formed when the tributary re-routed itself, cut through a thick layer of sediment, and began flowing over a bedrock cliff.

Scientists call this phenomenon superimposition.

Jack Schmidt, Janet Quinney Lawson Chair of Colorado River Studies in the Quinney College of Natural Resources at USU explains, “When reservoirs are created by the construction of dams, the sediment load of inflowing rivers is deposited in the most upstream part of the reservoir. In Lake Powell…the deposits in the…San Juan arm of the reservoir are as much as 80ft thick.”

“[If} reservoirs…drop…the inflowing rivers erode into the accumulated sediment. There is no guarantee the location of the new channel will be in the same place as…the original channel.”

The San Juan River’s original route was buried under the thick layer of sediment. The river’s response was to form a new channel one mile south of the original route and over the ridge.

Schmidt continues, “A [similar] thing…happened in Lake Mead reservoir where an unrunnable rapid formed near Pearce Ferry where the new Colorado River flows over a lip… [of] consolidated sediment. Although not a vertical waterfall, Pearce Ferry Rapid is sometimes more dangerous to boating than any rapid in the Grand Canyon!”

With future droughts, we can expect reservoirs to be at low levels for extended periods, and superimposition will continue to occur forming additional waterfalls and obstructions. Managers monitor the positive and negative effects of these changes.

One impact of the Piute Farms waterfall is a novel subpopulation of endangered razorback suckers which are now blocked from swimming upstream to spawn.

Endangered Razerbck Sucker Captured near Piute Farms Waterfall Courtesy & Copyright Mark McKinstry, Photographer
Endangered Razerbck Sucker
Captured near Piute Farms Waterfall
Courtesy & Copyright Mark McKinstry, Photographer

Zach Ahrens, Native Aquatics Biologist at Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and graduate student at USU says, “The razorback and other native fishes in the Colorado River basin have evolved over millions of years to play their roles in spite of the extremes of temperature and flow in their riverine environment. Given the uncertainty of future climate and water resources…it’s important to do what we can to ensure their continued survival.”

Before the waterfall formed, managers were not sure what percentage of razorback suckers travelled this far upstream.

Endangered Razerbck Sucker Captured near Piute Farms Waterfall Courtesy & Copyright Mark McKinstry, Photographer
Endangered Razerbck Sucker
Captured near Piute Farms Waterfall
Courtesy & Copyright Mark McKinstry, Photographer

Mark McKinstry, Biological Scientist from the Bureau of Reclamation, explains, “It took perseverance, technology, and dedication of a lot of different folks to find where…the Razorbacks are and understand the fish’s life history strategy.”

Peter MacKinnon with the Quinney College of Natural Resources at Utah State University and Biomark Inc. provided the technical expertise to set up a method to insert Razorback suckers with pit tags (similar to those used in cats and dogs) then track them with antennas placed below the falls.

With this tracking method, managers and researchers identified more than 1000 razorback suckers below the falls, apparently trying to ascend the waterfall. Approximately 2000-4000 suckers live in the San Juan River. It is estimated about 25% of the razorbacks are unable to spawn – because the waterfall blocks fish passage. This could influence the population of the endangered fish.

The Bureau of Reclamation consulted with experts on how to help razorback suckers get past the waterfall so they can move upstream and spawn. The most feasible suggestion seems to be, to build a naturalized fish passage around the side of the waterfall. Managers and volunteers would build a trap location on the upstream side of the passage where fish moving upstream could be captured; volunteers could then release the captured razorbacks and other native fish upstream where they choose to spawn.

Phaedra Budy, professor in the Watershed Sciences Department and Unit Leader for U.S. Geological Survey Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit said, “The Razorback sucker has intrinsic value to the San Juan River and beyond, is a critical member of the ecosystem, and deserves every effort for recovery.”

Managers and researchers hope their information gained and recovery efforts will give the endangered razorback suckers an increased chance for survival in its changing environment.

This is Shauna Leavitt and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy & Copyright © Mark McKinstry
Text: Shauna Leavitt, USGS Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University

Sources & Additional Reading

Waterfall Still Blocks San Juan River, River Runners for Wilderness(RRFW), https://rrfw.org/riverwire/waterfall-still-blocks-san-juan-river

https://www.americansouthwest.net/utah/monument_valley/piute_farms.html

Razorback Sucker(Page 68), Utah’s Endandengered Fish, 2018 Utah Fishing Guidebook, Utah Division of Wildlife Services, https://wildlife.utah.gov/guidebooks/2018_pdfs/2018_fishing.pdf

Fish Ecology Lab, Utah State University, 
https://www.usu.edu/fel/

Leave it to Beaver

Leave it to Beaver: Beaver Dam and Pond Courtesy and Copyright Bethany Neilson, Photographer
Beaver Dam and Pond
Courtesy and Copyright Bethany Neilson, Photographer
A few years ago the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources conducted a wonderful workshop for educators to provide them with materials to take to their classes to help students understand the many issues dealing with wildlife.

As an introductory activity, the Ranger asked each of us to name the animal we thought that had the greatest influence or impact on ecosystems. People mentioned Deer, Cougars, Moose, Wolves and so on until it was my turn. Without hesitation I said “Beavers”. One of the teachers laughed at me and mocked my answer trying to embarrass me. So I asked the Ranger to repeat the question: Which animal did we think had the greatest influence or impact on ecosystems.

Leave it to Beaver: Beaver Dam Releasing Water Courtesy and Copyright Bethany Neilson, Photographer
Beaver Dam Releasing Water
Courtesy and Copyright Bethany Neilson, Photographer
“Oh”, I said making certain I had now understood the question. “In that case I have no hesitation now in saying the Beaver.” The room grew quiet, but the Ranger agreed with my answer.

Leave it to Beaver: Below a Beaver Dam Courtesy and Copyright Bethany Neilson, Photographer
Below a Beaver Dam
Courtesy and Copyright Bethany Neilson, Photographer
There is no question that all animals impact ecosystems. Heavy grazing or browsing by deer or elk can change the structure of forests and meadows. Predators, or the lack of them, can definitely alter what happens to those species. But consider the beaver for a moment. There are positive and negative things they do, but they definitely impact ecosystems. So consider this love-hate relationship humans have with them.

Yes, they will take down some trees to build dams and lodges. Problems might include:
The potential flooding of homes, agricultural land, timber land or orchards;
Their abandoned dams can create floods as they collapse;
There is potential flooding of roads and blocking of culverts;
And the deterioration of stream banks can occur.

But in a natural setting, where they do not impact roads or developments, beavers can do amazing things.
On the positive side, they create ponds which:
Provide habitat for trout;
Provide drinking water for all the animals in the area, from birds to bears;
Provide a storage of water that could be critical in drought conditions;
Trap silt and control small floods;
Invigorate the sprouting of early riparian and wetland plants;
Can help combat the effects of continual rising temperatures and earlier Spring snowmelt by maintaining a water supply for ranching, wildlife and native vegetation;
And they are basically constructed and maintained at little or no cost to humans.

Utah State University, and the Division of Wildlife Resources, have been developing partnerships with landowners to help restore beavers in locations where they can succeed and provide benefits to the land, wildlife, and ranching efforts. In areas where there are few trees, they construct Beaver Dam Analogues by pounding fence posts across streams, weaving willow branches between them, and plugging the base with large rocks and mud. These are similar to natural beaver dams and give them a good start to build their own homes there.
If you are aware of any beavers in questionable areas, contact

USU Watershed Sciences or the DWR to help relocate them where they can impact ecosystems in positive ways.

This is Ron Hellstern, and I am Wild About Utah.
 
Credits:

Images: Courtesy & Copyright Ron Hellstern
Text: Ron Hellstern, Cache Valley Wildlife Association

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-news/webinar-cheap-cheerful-stream-restoration-with-beaver

Science Unwrapped Talk by Joe on Beaver
http://beaver.joewheaton.org/beaver-news/science-unwrapped-talk-by-joe-on-beaver

Videos & Movies
http://beaver.joewheaton.org/videos–movies.html

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


ARKive Images of Life on Earth, Information Sheet on Castor Canadensis (including some outstanding videos) http://www.arkive.org/ – (BBC Natural History Unit)

  • American Beaver – Overview
  • American Beaver in the Lodge with Young
  • American beaver felling trees and storing food for the winter
  • American beaver scaring moose away from its lodge
  • American beaver returning to its lodge with food

  • Collen, P. and R.J. Gibson. 2001. The general ecology of beavers (Castor spp.), as related to their influence on stream ecosystems and riparian habitats, and the subsequent effects on fish – a review. Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries 10: 439–461, 2001. http://www.springerlink.com/content/v48769740n817601/fulltext.pdf [ Accessed May 1, 2010]

    Prettyman, B. 2009. Utah wildlife: Leave it to the beavers. Article in Salt Lake Tribune, October 16, 2009. http://www.sltrib.com/ci_13570110 [ Accessed April 29, 2010]

    Smithsonian Castor Canadensis Information Page http://www.mnh.si.edu/mna/image_info.cfm?species_id=32 [ Accessed April 29, 2010]

    Big Bend Habitat Restoration Project: A Natural Work of Heart, Open Spaces-A Talk on the Wild Side, US FWS, http://www.fws.gov/news/blog/index.cfm/2016/3/25/Big-Bend-Habitat-Restoration-Project-A-Natural-Work-of-Heart [Accessed March 31, 2016]

    Beaver Dams Strengthened by Humans Help Fish Rebound
    60-Second Science – July 25, 2016 – By Jason G. Goldman02:29 http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode/beaver-dams-strengthened-by-humans-help-fish-rebound/ Also available through the podcast https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/60-second-science/id189330872?mt=2

    Keep Utah Clean

    Recycle Where Possible Keep Utah Clean Courtesy Ron Hellstern, Photographer
    Recycle Where Possible
    Keep Utah Clean
    Courtesy Ron Hellstern, Photographer
    I was a young boy when my family took our first trip from Illinois to Utah. We stopped at a scenic park with picnic tables to enjoy our lunch. A family at a nearby table had just finished and were loading their car, leaving behind all their table scraps and trash.

    I was surprised to see my father approach that family and calmly request that they clean up their mess. They refused saying that someone would clean it up sooner or later. The man started his car, but was amazed when my Dad stood in front of his car blocking his exit. The man roared his engine.

    My mother, siblings and I sat dumbfounded at the scene. Would my father actually allow that man to run over him? Would that man actually do it? No, he shut his car off, swore at my Dad and then cleaned up his mess. My Dad thanked him and quietly returned to our table to finish his lunch.

    My Dad would have been a hero in the television series, “What Would You Do?” where actors play their parts in scenes of conflict just to see what innocent bystanders will do…if anything.

    I have never forgotten that incident, and it forged a lifelong commitment in me when I moved to Utah to help keep it scenic, clean, and beautiful. There should be locations here where traces of mankind are difficult to see.

    You have probably all witnessed reports of tons of plastic trash accumulating in oceans and beaches where it threatens marine life. At times, it is so bad the beaches are closed.

    There is no excuse for that kind of behavior along our coastlines, or anywhere within our own State. We’ve all heard the slogan: Pack it in, pack it out.

    If you have litter in your car, leave it there until you reach a trash can. Bottles, cans, gum-wrappers and cigarette butts have no place to be discarded along highways, sidewalks, or hiking trails. Take them with you for proper disposal. Don’t think that someone will clean it up sooner or later.

    To most people, the idea of allowing litter and trash to pile up in slums or developing countries is a sign of surrender. It shows a lack of pride or services in their community. A small percentage of people honestly believe that they have the right to do as they please, including littering or playing loud music as they walk along trails designed for serenity and contemplation. I’m not suggesting confronting people like that because they will never be able to understand your point of view. Or perhaps they lacked the training of a father like mine. So, I tend to be one of those who usually picks up the litter that I find along the trails.
    But if I see you drop it…we’ll probably have a friendly discussion.

    This is Ron Hellstern, and I am Wild About Utah.
     
    Credits:

    Images: Courtesy & Copyright Ron Hellstern
    Text: Ron Hellstern, Cache Valley Wildlife Association

    Additional Reading

    Adopt a Highway, Utah DOT, https://www.udot.utah.gov/main/f?p=100:pg:0:::1:T,V:28,340

    For a Better Utah, Help Clean Up Roadside Litter, Deseret News, April 29, 1989, https://www.deseretnews.com/article/44221/FOR-A-BETTER-UTAH-HELP-CLEAN-UP-ROADSIDE-LITTER.html

    John Rasmuson, Litter Bugs
    A little trash pickup goes a long way, Feb 19, 2014, https://www.cityweekly.net/utah/litter-bugs/Content?oid=2374891