The Henry Mountains’ Bison Herd

American Bison Courtesy US FWS Ryan Moehring, Photographer
American Bison
Courtesy US FWS
Ryan Moehring, Photographer
The Henry Mountains of southeast Utah are famous for being the last mountain range in the contiguous United States to have been officially mapped. Indeed, before they were mapped, they were often referred to as the “Unknown Mountains.” Another relative unknown detail about this range is that it harbors one of only five genetically pure, free roaming bison herds on North American public lands.

In 1941, a seed herd of 18 American Plains Bison (B. b. bison) were transplanted from Yellowstone National Park to the arid desert of Utah’s Robbers Roost. A year later, five more bulls were introduced to the herd in hopes of sufficiently diversifying the gene pool and sustaining the herd. The bison must not have found Robbers Roost as appealing as Butch Cassidy had, though, because this new Wild Bunch set out for literal greener pastures that very same year.

The small herd forded the Dirty Devil River and travelled southwest toward the Burr Desert. The herd stopped here for a while, enjoying their newfound buffet atop the Aquarius Plateau. 21 years later, though, in 1963, the still small herd grew tired of the desert and abandoned it altogether for the higher, more verdant snow fed meadows of the nearby Henry Mountains. Here, the herd thrived and quickly swelled in numbers.

Today, the herd’s population is estimated to be between 300 and 400 animals, which ecologists and wildlife biologists regard as the maximum carrying capacity of their Henry Mountain range. The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has responded accordingly. In an effort to perpetuate the health of the herd and their range, the DWR began issuing “Once-in-a-lifetime” permits to hunters hoping to fulfill not only a tag but also a burning sense of adventure. The Henry Mountains, after all, were mapped last for a reason. They remain one of the most rugged and remote places in a state known for its rugged and remote places.

Fittingly, quite unlike their more quintessential Plains Bison brethren, the Henry Mountains bison can be found almost anywhere in the Henrys between the desert lowlands and timberline. Apparently no one has told the herd that Plains Bison don’t typically like high elevations or steep mountain slopes. This unique proclivity of the Henry Mountains herd to cast off behavioral stereotypes works in their favor when hunting season rolls around and they abandon the high, open meadows for steep, wooded canyons and thick groves of aspen and evergreens.

This highly adaptive nature unique to the Henry Mountains herd made it an obvious candidate to serve as a seed population in early 2010 when 39 individuals were transplanted from the Henry Mountains to the Book Cliffs along the Utah-Colorado border. These 39 animals were to serve as a genetic supplement to a relatively new herd first reintroduced to the Book Cliffs by the Ute Indian Tribe in 1986. The now 600-strong Book Cliffs herd is well on its way to reestablishing the American Plains Bison’s historic range in the Book Cliffs.

The story of the Book Cliffs and Henry Mountains Bison give us reason to hope that one day soon, the American Bison might reclaim its territory, a historic range that once ran from Alaska through the Canadian territories and the Great Plains to the Eastern Seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico. And, if so, the role the Henry Mountains herd will play in that expansion may be a significant one.

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

Credits:

Photos: Courtesy US FWS, Ryan Moehring, Photographer
Audio: Includes audio from
Text: Josh Boling, 2019

Sources & Additional Reading

Utah’s Book Cliffs Herd, Bison Bellows Series, National Park Service, June 30, 2016, https://www.nps.gov/articles/bison-bellows-6-30-16.htm

How scientists brought bison back to Banff, National Public Radio, Feb 28, 2017, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/scientists-brought-bison-back-banff

Buffalo (Bison) on the Henry Mountains, Capitol Reef Country, Wayne County Tourism, https://capitolreef.org/blog/buffalo-bison-on-the-henry-mountains/

Henry Mountains, Utah.com, https://utah.com/henry-mountains

Bison Unit Management Plan, Unit #15 Henry Mountains, Utah Division of Wildlife Management, https://wildlife.utah.gov/hunting/biggame/pdf/bison_15.pdf

Gilman, Don, Rare, genetically-pure bison found in Utah’s Henry Mountains, St George News, Jan 12, 2016, https://www.stgeorgeutah.com/news/archive/2016/01/12/djg-genetically-pure-bison-found-in-utahs-henry-mountains/#.XB7nRs9KjfY

Henry Mountain Outfitters, HuntersTrailhead, http://www.hunterstrailhead.com/index.php?ID=147

Brian, Jayden, Utah Henry Mountain Bison Hunts, Bull Mountain Outfitters, LLC, http://henrymtnbisonhunts.com/

Henry Mountains bison herd, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Mountains_bison_herd

Wild Cats

Bobcat in plants Courtesy US FWS Steve Hillebrand, Photographer
Bobcat in plants
Courtesy US FWS
Steve Hillebrand, Photographer
I remember well my first encounter with a wild cat. I was sitting in a deer stand beneath a cross-country powerline, at the edge of a meadowed thoroughfare the whitetails frequented. Dusk was settling in—nearly time to go—as the trees opposite me began to rustle. With a few minutes of legal light left, I readied my trigger finger; but instead of a deer, a bobcat exited the woods. I was shocked. This—I had not expected. I watched as the cat looked left, then right, then straight at me, making eye contact. There was no reason I should have been noticed. I hadn’t made a sound, hadn’t moved in nearly three hours save the scanning of my eyes and the slight rise and fall of my chest with every breath.
Bobcat Public Domain image courtesy US FWS National Conservation Training Center
Bobcat
Public Domain image courtesy US FWS
National Conservation Training Center
Still, I had been found. The cat ambled slowly but with purpose toward the ladder that connected my seat to the ground, stopping a few meters away. He or she never broke eye contact. Neither did I. I’m not sure why. Instinct, perhaps. I would learn many years later from a man who had stared down a mountain lion from a meter away that you never break eye contact with a big cat in the wild. Never. I have no idea how long we sat there together. Minutes? Seconds? Hours? It was fully dark when the animal turned to leave—so dark I had lost the pattern of its coat in the shadows. I never saw where it went; but I’ve been enamored with wild cats ever since.

Bobcat Courtesy US FWS Gary Kramer, Photographer
Bobcat
Courtesy US FWS
Gary Kramer, Photographer
The landscapes that have shifted and morphed and been politically bordered into what is now the state of Utah has been populated by wild cats since at least 40,000 years ago. During the Pleistocene Epoch’s last ice age, the infamous saber-toothed cat roamed Utah’s glacier-clogged crags. Bones of the saber-toothed species known as Smilodon have been unearthed in Utah, most notably from the Silver Creek site near present-day Park City. Smilodon, with its legendary curved, saber-like canine teeth, was a fearsome hunter of ancient Utah’s mega fauna like the mastodon and wooly mammoth; but when the glaciers receded and the Earth began to melt, the mega fauna couldn’t adapt, so Smilodon had nothing to hunt.

Smilodon gave way through the millennia to the smaller but no less impressive cats that occupy Utah’s crags and hills today—the bobcat, the Canada Lynx, and, of course, the famous mountain lion.

Big cat footprint Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
Big cat footprint Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
It hasn’t been too long since that spring evening in the canyons of southern Utah. We had just rappelled into a small grotto where, at the bottom, there was an ephemeral pool. The sand was already wet with little droplets along the edge, a footprint here and there leading away—the way we would take—down the only path toward home. We chattered more loudly, making ourselves known, as we proceeded. Then we’d grow quiet again, eyes sweeping here and there, secretly hoping we would get a peak of the lion as it sauntered away from us. We never did, but it was there.

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

Credits:

Photos: Courtesy US FWS
Big cat track photo courtesy and copyright Josh Boling
Audio: Includes audio from North Sounds, Inc.
Text: Josh Boling, 2018

Sources & Additional Reading

Golla, Julie M., “Urban Bobcat (Lynx rufus) Ecology in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas Metroplex” (2017). All Graduate Theses and Dissertations. 6857.
https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/etd/6857

Bauman, Joe, Ice Age in Utah, Deseret News, Dec 3, 1997, https://www.deseretnews.com/article/598582/Ice-age-in-Utah.html

Larese-Casanova, Mark, Mountain Wildlife Field Book, Utah Master Naturalists, https://extension.usu.edu/utahmasternaturalist/files/UMNP_Mountains_Wildlife_Book_booklet.pdf

Fossils on Reclamation Lands Provide a Glimpse Into the Past, https://www.usbr.gov/newsroom/stories/detail.cfm?RecordID=57996

Ice Age Animals of Utah, Utah Geological Services, A division of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, https://geology.utah.gov/popular/general-geology/ice-age/ice-age-animals-of-utah/

Strand, Holly, Mountain Lion, Wild About Utah, Mar 4, 2010https://wildaboututah.org/mountain-lion/

Greene, Jack, My Cougar Encounter, Wild About Utah, Jan 16, 2017, https://wildaboututah.org/my-cougar-encounter/

Murie, O. J. (1982). Animal Tracks. Peterson Field Guides. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin. http://www.amazon.com/Peterson-Field-Guide-Animal-Tracks/dp/061851743X




Greenback Cutthroat Trout

Greenback Cutthroat Trout Courtesy US FWS Bruce Roselund, Photographer
Greenback Cutthroat Trout
Courtesy US FWS
Bruce Roselund, Photographer
In 2009, officials from the US Division of Wildlife Resources who were out searching for isolated populations of Colorado River Cutthroat Trout found something better—and far more perplexing. Within a 1.2-mile stretch of Beaver Creek, which runs down the eastern flank of the La Sal Mountains near Moab, Utah, surveyors discovered a small, but genetically pure population of a subspecies of Cutthroat Trout known as the Greenback. The fish is not only rare among its fellow Cutthroats; it was heretofore unknown to Utah waters.

The natural history of the Greenback Cutthroat is fascinating! As a member of the genus Oncorhynchus, Greenback Cutthroat Trout trace their lineage back about 2 million years to Salmonid ancestors that chose to forego their return to the Pacific Ocean and instead pursued habitat further and further up the Columbia and Snake River drainages into the Green and Yellowstone River Basins. From here, cutthroat predecessors diversified into subspecies we know today: the Alvord, Bonneville, Humboldt, Lahontan, Yellowfin, Yellowstone, Colorado River, and, among others, the Greenback Cutthroat.

Greenbacks took a particularly arduous path to what is now their native home range. About 20,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene Epoch’s glacial maximum, Greenbacks hitched a ride via advancing ice sheets and their runoff, crossing eastward over the Continental Divide. And, historically, that’s where they’ve been found—east of the continental divide. However, in a 2014 summary report of a meeting among experts on the Greenback Cutthroat Trout’s whereabouts in Colorado, the US Fish and Wildlife Service says this about the fish’s home range: “Until recently, delineations of subspecies of cutthroat trout in Colorado were believed to follow geographic boundaries within the state, with greenback cutthroat trout on the eastern side of the Continental Divide and Colorado River cutthroat trout on the western side.” That seems to have changed.

Greenback Cutthroat Trout were found in Beaver Creek in the La Sal Mountains
Greenback Cutthroat Trout
were found in Beaver Creek
in the La Sal Mountains
Experts are at a loss as to how Greenbacks came to occupy the waters of Utah. Speculations abound from rogue fishermen stocking their favorite backwaters with favorite species from the Colorado Front Range to a remnant population of an ancient strand that may have ridden the glaciers all the way to La Sal runoffs. What’s even more perplexing is the population’s pure genetic makeup. Cutthroat Trout hybridize easily with other fish; but the Beaver Creek population hasn’t. One reason may be the creek’s inaccessibility. Disease and non-native trout haven’t threatened the resident Greenbacks; and so they have lived on undisturbed, unadulterated, and, until about a decade ago, unknown to their human counterparts. This gives the wildlife conservation community some hope for the fish’s viability moving forward.

Greenbacks currently only occupy roughly 1% of their historic native range and were once thought to be extinct altogether. This hardy and adventurous fish refuses to call it quits, though. Who knows, maybe the valiant reclamation of its old territory has already begun along so many other inaccessible and unadulterated creek beds.

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

Credits:

Images:
Greenback Cutthroat Trout, Courtesy Fish and Wildlife Service, US Department of the Interior, Bruce Roselund, Photographer
Beaver Creek, LaSal Mountains, Courtesy Utah Division of Wildlife Resources,
Audio: Includes audio provided by Friend Weller, UPR
Text: Josh Boling, 2018

Sources & Additional Reading

Georg, Ron, Rare trout found in La Sal Mountains, The Times Independent, Moab, UT, May 14, 2009, http://moabtimes.com/bookmark/2560140-Rare-trout-found-in-La-Sal-Mountains

Prettyman, Brett, Greenback or not wildlife officials work to expand cutthroat population, The Salt Lake Tribune, Nov. 19, 2010, http://archive.sltrib.com/article.php?id=50632061&itype=cmsid#gallery-carousel-446996

Thompson, Paul, A lifelong passion for native cutthroat trout, Wildlife Blog, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, April 10, 2017, https://wildlife.utah.gov/blog/2017/a-lifelong-passion-for-native-cutthroat-trout/

Greenback Cutthroat Trout, Western Native Trout Initiative, http://westernnativetrout.org/greenback-cutthroat-trout/

Greenback cutthroat found in Utah for first time, KSL/The Salt Lake Tribune/The Associated Press, May 1, 2009, https://www.ksl.com/?nid=148&sid=6338134

A Desert’s Paradox

Upheaval Dome Courtesy Wikimedia Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Upheaval Dome
Courtesy Wikimedia
Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Have you ever wondered why the redrock landscape of Southeastern Utah ebbs and flows, why the exposed layers of sedimentary rock seem to rise and fall in crests and troughs like so many waves across the surface of the sea? Well, the answer, surprisingly enough, can be found through investigating the ancient seas that once covered vast swathes of Southeast Utah more than 300 million years ago.

Salt Diapir Courtesy Geology.com
Salt Diapir
Courtesy Geology.com
Back then, the allotment of Earth’s crust that would one day become the Beehive State was located along the western edge of a chain of islands that rose above a shallow, equatorial sea. 15 million years of sea level rise, recession, and evaporation left behind layer upon layer of salt deposits that would eventually measure nearly a mile thick. These salt deposits were subsequently covered and crushed by vast layers of sediment, rock, and debris eroded from the flanks of the Ancestral Rocky Mountains. Under the tremendous weight of these additional layers, the now lithified layers of salty stone softened and squirted west like toothpaste through a tube until they collided with deep tectonic faults. Here, they erupted upward, forcing the younger, denser rock layers into anticlinal arched domes, called diapirs, resembling the crests of waves. This phenomenon works much like a waterbed across the landscape: heavier rock layers squirting salt into thinner layers of rock that then bulge upward before they are subsequently squashed downward again by even more sediment, rock, and debris. The subterranean movement of salt through rock layers becomes a game of geologic whack-a-mole.

Cane Creek Anticline Canyonlands National Park Courtesy USGS, Public Domain, Photo id: 249988
Cane Creek Anticline
Canyonlands National Park
Courtesy USGS, Public Domain, Photo id: 249988
I recently visited Dead Horse Point State Park between the town of Moab and Canyonlands National Park. On the eastern edge of the rising mesa on which the park is located, one can look out across millions of years’ worth of sedimentary deposits toward the Cane Creek Anticline, an obvious salt diapir that seems to rise straight out of the Colorado River. Perhaps the most famous (and most contested) salt diapir in the area, though, is that of Upheaval Dome, located in Canyonlands National Park. An alternative theory to the creation of Upheaval Dome maintains that an ancient meteor impact created the crater where Upheaval Dome is located. However, the fracturing of the younger Wingate Sandstone that occupies the higher rock layers is indicative of a salt diapir formation. Yet, debate rages on!

A Deserts Paradox: Paradox Basin Overview Courtesy & Copyright Buffalo Royalties
Paradox Basin Overview
Courtesy & Copyright Buffalo Royalties
Funnily enough, the discovery of this layer of ancient salt deposits that wreaks so much havoc below the Earth’s surface was made in the collapsed center of an ancient salt diapir. In 1875, geologist and surveyor Albert Charles Peale, at the time yet unaware of the salt tectonics at work beneath the Colorado Plateau, noted the paradoxical course of the Delores River. As Peale and his colleagues would find out, the geography of the collapsed salt diapir caused the river to chart a perpendicular course through its valley as opposed to a parallel course as is most often taken by rivers. This paradox of fluvial geomorphology gave the place its name, Paradox Valley. Likewise, the subsequent discovery of an entire basin of ancient salt deposits borrowed the name “Paradox.” Now, we know the salty layer as the Paradox Formation of rocks found throughout the Paradox Basin of the Colorado Plateau.

Paradox Valley Courtesy & Copyright GJhikes.com
Paradox Valley
Courtesy & Copyright GJhikes.com
This paradox of fluvial geomorphology can also be found where the Colorado River cuts a perpendicular course across the Spanish Valley of Moab and is indicative of a vast layer of ancient salts below the surface, waiting to further morph the landscape into crests and troughs of rocky waves that ebb and flow across the landscape. The next time you venture into this part of our great state, stop and consider the remnants of ancient seas below your feet that project their image into the surface of the redrock above.

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

Credits:

Photos: Paradox Basin Overview, Courtesy and Copyright Buffalo Royalties
Upheaval Dome Courtesy Wikimedia, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:UpheavalDomePanorama.jpg
Salt Diapir Courtesy Geology.com, https://geology.com/stories/13/salt-domes/
Paradox Valley Courtesy GJhikes.com, https://www.gjhikes.com/2017/10/long-park.html
Cane Creek Anticline Courtesy USGS (Photo id: 249988 – Canyonlands National Park, Utah. Cane Creek anticline, looking northeast toward the La Sal Mountains from Dead Horse Point. The Colorado River cuts across the crest at the middle right, above which is Anticline Overlook. A jeep trail and part of Shafer dome lie below. Figure 13, U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 1327. – ID. Lohman, S.W. 10cp – lswc0010 – U.S. Geological Survey – Public domain image)
Text: Josh Boling, 2018

Sources & Additional Reading

Davis, Jim, Glad You Asked: Why Does A River Run Through It?, Glad You Asked, Utah Geological Survey, https://geology.utah.gov/map-pub/survey-notes/glad-you-asked/why-does-a-river-run-through-it/