Habitat Heroes Explore More Utah Biomes

Utah is a wildly diverse place. Ecological and biological diversity are usually tied to an abundance of water; but here in Utah, despite our relative lack of the wet stuff, we boast of at least nine unique biomes spanning from the low-elevation Mojave Desert around St. George to the high Alpine Tundra of our many snowcapped mountain ranges. You can think of a biome as a large community of similar organisms and climates or a collection of similar habitats. Just recently, my third grade students wrapped up a semester-long investigation into seven of those biomes found in Utah including the high Alpine Tundra, Riparian/Montane Zone, Sagebrush Steppe, Wetlands, and the Great Basin, Colorado Plateau, and Mojave Deserts. We explored those biomes by way of researching a specific animal endemic in Utah to each of those biomes. We called our project “Habitat Heroes.” I’ll let a few of my students explain their findings.

(Student readings)
Zach's Rubber Boa  Head, Tongue and Scales Courtesy & Copyright EBLS (Full Student Name Redacted)
Zach’s Rubber Boa
Head, Tongue and Scales
Courtesy & Copyright EBLS
(Full Student Name Redacted)
Zach’s Rubber Boa:
My name is Zach, and my animal is the rubber boa. The rubber boa lives in the riparian/montane biome in Utah. The rubber boa eats shrews, mice, small birds, lizards, snakes, and amphibians and is usually found along streams and in forests and in meadows.
Noah's Ringtail Courtesy & Copyright EBLS (Full Student Name Redacted)
Noah’s Ringtail
Courtesy & Copyright EBLS (Full Student Name Redacted)
Noah’s Ringtail:
This is Noah, and I’ve been studying the ringtail. The ringtail lives in the cold desert biome on the Colorado Plateau in Utah. The ringtail is gray and furry with a long black and white tail. How ringtails catch their food: number one-being very sly and waiting for the right time. They live in rocky deserts, caves, and hollow logs.
Muskrat Collage Courtesy & Copyright EBLS (Full Student Name Redacted)
Muskrat Collage
Courtesy & Copyright EBLS (Full Student Name Redacted)
The Muskrat:
My animal’s the muskrat. The muskrat lives in the wetland biome in Utah. Muskrats live in Mexico, Canada, and the United States where there are marshes, ponds, and vegetated water. Muskrats go out at night and find food like aquatic plants, grass, and fish. They have special abilities that can be used for a very special reason to help them survive.

Elizah's Long-tailed Weasel Courtesy & Copyright EBLS (Full Student Name Redacted)
Elizah’s Long-tailed Weasel
Courtesy & Copyright EBLS
(Full Student Name Redacted)
Elizah’s Weasel:
My name is Elizah, and my animal is the long-tailed weasel. The long-tailed weasel lives in the Great Basin biome in Utah. They are brown and yellow all year long except for winter. They are white during winter. [The] long-tailed weasel’s scientific name is Mustela frenata. They are mostly nocturnal.

In addition to researching the different biomes and learning about the adaptations animals must possess in order to survive there, these third graders have been visiting the several biomes local to Cache Valley and investigating their research animals’ habitats. These experiences have been powerful in helping students realize what it’s really like to exist in the wilds of Utah.

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

Investigating Beaver Habitats Along Temple Fork Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS
Investigating Beaver Habitats Along Temple Fork
Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS
Exploring an alpine-type biome along beaver creek Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS
Exploring an alpine-type biome along beaver creek
Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS
Flying like the birds; Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS
Flying like the birds; Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge
Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS
Looking at tree migration in Green Canyon Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS
Looking at tree migration in Green Canyon
Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS
Investigating Beaver Curtis Creek wanderings; Hardware Ranch; Blacksmith Fork Canyon Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS
Investigating Beaver Curtis Creek wanderings; Hardware Ranch; Blacksmith Fork Canyon
Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS

Credits:
Images:
    Artwork Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling’s 3rd Grade students
    Photos Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, Edith Bowen Laboratory School Field Experience Director
Sound:
Text: Josh Boling, 2017, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Sources & Additional Reading

Boling, Josh and students, Habitat Heroes Explore Utah Biomes, Wild About Utah, Mar 4, 2019, https://wildaboututah.org/utah-biomes/

Edith Bowen Laboratory School, https://edithbowen.usu.edu/

Biomes, Kimball’s Biology Pages, http://www.biology-pages.info/B/Biomes.html

Mission Biomes, NASA Earth Observatory, https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/experiments/biome

The World’s Biomes, University of California Museum of Paleontology, UC Berkeley, https://ucmp.berkeley.edu/glossary/gloss5/biome/

Habitat Heroes Explore Utah Biomes

Utah is a wildly diverse place. Ecological and biological diversity are usually tied to an abundance of water; but here in Utah, despite our relative lack of the wet stuff, we boast of at least nine unique biomes spanning from the low-elevation Mojave Desert around St. George to the high Alpine Tundra of our many snowcapped mountain ranges. You can think of a biome as a large community of similar organisms and climates or a collection of similar habitats. Just recently, my third grade students wrapped up a semester-long investigation into seven of those biomes found in Utah including the high Alpine Tundra, Riparian/Montane Zone, Sagebrush Steppe, Wetlands, and the Great Basin, Colorado Plateau, and Mojave Deserts. We explored those biomes by way of researching a specific animal endemic in Utah to each of those biomes. We called our project “Habitat Heroes.” I’ll let a few of my students explain their findings.

(Student readings)
Asher's Gila Monster Courtesy & Copyright EBLS (Full Student Name Redacted)
Asher’s Gila Monster
Courtesy & Copyright EBLS
(Full Student Name Redacted)
Asher’s Gila Monster:
My name is Asher, and my animal is the Gila Monster. The Gila Monster lives in the Mojave desert biome in southwest Utah. Gila Monsters look like a lizard, just black and orange or pink and yellow with a black face and a short thick tail. Gila Monsters eat the eggs from ground birds, lizards, and snakes. Gila Monsters live in the Mojave desert in sandy areas and on rocky shelves and in burrows.
Jane's Pygmy Rabbit Courtesy & Copyright EBLS (Full Student Name Redacted)
Jane’s Pygmy Rabbit
Courtesy & Copyright EBLS (Full Student Name Redacted)
Jane’s Pygmy Rabbit:
I am Jane, and I am going to tell you about the pygmy rabbit. The pygmy rabbit lives in the sagebrush steppe biome in Utah. Did you know that a pygmy rabbit can protect itself by hiding in the sagebrush? They eat sagebrush and they drink lake water and river water. They have to chew on food to keep their teeth short.
Haven's Red Fox Courtesy & Copyright EBLS (Full Student Name Redacted)
Haven’s Red Fox
Courtesy & Copyright EBLS (Full Student Name Redacted)
Haven’s Red Fox:
My name is Haven, and my animal is the red fox. The red fox lives in the alpine tundra biome in Utah. Red foxes eat small mammals, berries, insects, and other food, too. They have huge ears so they can hear when other animals are coming. The red fox is a really tricky and aggressive animal because it can do a lot of really tricky and aggressive things!

In addition to researching the different biomes and learning about the adaptations animals must possess in order to survive there, these third graders have been visiting the several biomes local to Cache Valley and investigating their research animals’ habitats. These experiences have been powerful in helping students realize what it’s really like to exist in the wilds of Utah.

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

Investigating Beaver Habitats Along Temple Fork Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS
Investigating Beaver Habitats Along Temple Fork
Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS
Exploring an alpine-type biome along beaver creek Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS
Exploring an alpine-type biome along beaver creek
Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS
Flying like the birds; Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS
Flying like the birds; Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge
Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS
Looking at tree migration in Green Canyon Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS
Looking at tree migration in Green Canyon
Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS
Investigating Beaver Curtis Creek wanderings; Hardware Ranch; Blacksmith Fork Canyon Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS
Investigating Beaver Curtis Creek wanderings; Hardware Ranch; Blacksmith Fork Canyon
Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS

Credits:
Images:
    Artwork Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling’s 3rd Grade students
    Photos Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, Edith Bowen Laboratory School Field Experience Director
Sound:
Text: Josh Boling, 2017, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Sources & Additional Reading

Boling, Josh and students, Habitat Heroes Explore More Utah Biomes, Wild About Utah, Apr 8, 2019, https://wildaboututah.org/explore-utah-biomes/

Edith Bowen Laboratory School, https://edithbowen.usu.edu/

Biomes, Kimball’s Biology Pages, http://www.biology-pages.info/B/Biomes.html

Mission Biomes, NASA Earth Observatory, https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/experiments/biome

The World’s Biomes, University of California Museum of Paleontology, UC Berkeley, https://ucmp.berkeley.edu/glossary/gloss5/biome/

Beaver Creek Greenback Cutthroat Trout

Beaver Creek 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.

Beaver Creek 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

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