Building a Warm Home for Endangered Razorback Suckers’ Young

Razorback Sucker: A tiny razorback sucker larvae under a microscope. They look like tiny noodles when seen swimming in the wetlands. Courtesy & Copyright Katie Creighton, Photographer
A tiny razorback sucker larvae under a microscope. They look like tiny noodles when seen swimming in the wetlands.
Courtesy & Copyright Katie Creighton, Photographer
Just outside Moab between the cold, fast flowing water of the Colorado River and the slow, warmer waters of the Matheson Wetland Preserve stands a newly constructed escape passage for larvae of the endangered razorback sucker.

The fish nursery was built to provide the newly hatched razorbacks a way to escape the appetites of the large predators in the Colorado River.

The tiny “noodle like” larvae enter the passage, swim through a screen which holds the predators back, then live a peaceful few months in the safe, nutrient rich water of the preserve.

Razorback Sucker: Katie Creighton and Zach Ahrens both native aquatics biologists for Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (UDWR) standing on the temporary Matheson screen. The Nature Conservancy and UDWR partnered together to build the structure to allow the endangered razorback sucker larvae to enter the Scott M. Matheson Wetlands Preserve without the predators also coming in. Courtesy & Copyright Katie Creighton, Photographer
Katie Creighton and Zach Ahrens both native aquatics biologists for Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (UDWR) standing on the temporary Matheson screen. The Nature Conservancy and UDWR partnered together to build the structure to allow the endangered razorback sucker larvae to enter the Scott M. Matheson Wetlands Preserve without the predators also coming in.
Courtesy & Copyright Katie Creighton, Photographer
The larvae will stay in the Matheson Wetland preserve during the summer to grow and gain strength. When water levels drop, the razorback young will be moved back into the Colorado River when they are much larger and have a better chance of survival.

The razorback sucker has lived in the Colorado River for thousands of years and has adapted to Utah’s warm turbid desert waters and rivers.

But during the twentieth century the razorbacks faced two threats: the growing population of non-native predator fish that consume the razorbacks, and the changing flow regime in the Colorado River Basin due to increasing water demand and development. These two threats decreased the razorbacks’ ability to maintain a sustainable population, which eventually led to the listing of the sucker as a federally endangered species.

Light trap near control structure in the Scott M. Matheson preserve. The traps are used to catch and monitor razorback sucker larvae. Courtesy & Copyright Katie Creighton, Photographer
Light trap near control structure in the Scott M. Matheson preserve. The traps are used to catch and monitor razorback sucker larvae.
Courtesy & Copyright Katie Creighton, Photographer
Katie Creighton, the native aquatics project leader with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources said, “In the Upper Basin [of the Colorado River], specifically around Moab, we saw [a] pretty significant decline in [population] numbers in the mid-90s [which] prompted stocking. We began to augment the populations with fish we reared in hatcheries.”

For 30 years, managers stocked razorback in the Colorado River. Then in 2008, they began noticing an increase in adult razorback numbers and detecting spawning aggregations which prompted managers to begin tracking reproduction.

Creighton explains, “We [went] into the rivers around Moab, in the Green and the Colorado Rivers, and…set larval light traps… to determine whether or not these fish were successfully spawning.”

Light trap in the Scott M. Matheson Wetlands Preserve. The trap is used to determine how many larvae make it into the preserve. Courtesy & Copyright Katie Creighton, Photographer
Light trap in the Scott M. Matheson Wetlands Preserve. The trap is used to determine how many larvae make it into the preserve.
Courtesy & Copyright Katie Creighton, Photographer
The light traps collected a promising amount of razorback larvae in both the Green and Colorado Rivers.

Managers could now say the razorbacks do well as stocked adults, they reproduce in the wild, and their eggs hatch successfully.

The question left unresolved is why the “young of the year” are not surviving, juvenile razorbacks are rarely seen in the wild.

Unravelling the bottleneck between when the razorbacks hatch and when they become adults has become the new focus for managers. This is where the Matheson Wetlands project came in. Utah Division of Wildlife Resources partnered with the Natural Conservancy to build the fish nursery.

Katie Creighton, native aquatics biologists for Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, setting light traps in Matheson Preserve. The traps are used to monitor razorback sucker larvae. Courtesy & Copyright Katie Creighton, Photographer
Katie Creighton, native aquatics biologists for Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, setting light traps in Matheson Preserve. The traps are used to monitor razorback sucker larvae.
Courtesy & Copyright Katie Creighton, Photographer
Creighton explains, “The main goal [of the project] is to get [the razorback suckers] off the endangered species list. To recover them to self-sustaining populations that can maintain their numbers without…stocking. It’s a pretty ambitious goal, especially because we have to do [it] in the face of continued water use and water development…The recovery program is not battling or trying to stop water development, its goal is [simply] to recover these species in the face of what is currently happening with water use.”

Phaedra Budy, professor in the Watershed Sciences Department at USU and unit leader for U.S. Geological Survey Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit said, “The Razorback sucker has intrinsic value to the [Colorado River system], is a critical member of the ecosystem, and deserves every effort for recovery.”

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

Credits:
Photos:
    Courtesy US NPS, Zach Schierl, Photographer, Education Specialist, Cedar Breaks National Monument
    Courtesy & Copyright Shauna Leavitt,
Audio: Courtesy and Copyright
Text: Shauna Leavitt, USGS Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University

Sources & Additional Reading

Leavitt, Shauna, Piute Farms Waterfall on Lower San Juan – a Tributary of Lake Powell, Wild About Utah, Aug 6, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/piute-farms-waterfall-on-lower-san-juan-a-tributary-of-lake-powell/

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/

Razorback sucker (Xyrauchen texanus), Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, http://www.coloradoriverrecovery.org/general-information/the-fish/razorback-sucker.html

Scott M. Matheson Wetlands Preserve, The Places We Protect, The Nature Conservancy, https://www.nature.org/en-us/get-involved/how-to-help/places-we-protect/scott-m-matheson-wetlands-preserve/

A Nursery for Endangered Fish, The Nature Conservancy, https://www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/united-states/utah/stories-in-utah/razorback-sucker-nursery-utah/

Natural Quiet and Darkness in our National Parks

Natural Quiet and Darkness in our National Parks: View looking east in early summer from Cedar Breaks National Monument Courtesy US NPS, Zach Schierl, Photographer
View looking east in early summer from Cedar Breaks National Monument
Courtesy US NPS, Zach Schierl, Photographer
If visitors find locations in Utah’s National Parks, where very little man-made sounds are heard, it can be a breathtaking experience. A park visitor may canoe along riparian habitat and hear a variety of bird calls, or hike a trail and come around a bend to see a few deer jump over the sage-brush.

These types of experiences may also occur after dark when visitors participate in stargazing or a full-moon hikes.

The southern Milky Way visible during a star party at Cedar Breaks National Monument. We use red lights on the telescopes during star parties to help preserve night vision. Courtesy US NPS, Zach Schierl, Photographer
The southern Milky Way visible during a star party at Cedar Breaks National Monument. We use red lights on the telescopes during star parties to help preserve night vision.
Courtesy US NPS, Zach Schierl, Photographer
Mark and Sallie Shelton said, “Utah dark skies are our passion! The [dark] sky and quiet solitude are magical. Visitors, from around the world, are in awe when they get their first [heavenly] glimpse of [the Milky Way] and see the stars shining like diamonds on dark velvet.”

Protecting the quiet and darkness of our National Parks has become a priority for many managers and researchers.

Four planets and the Moon are visible in the twilight sky over ancient Bristlecone Pine trees at Cedar Breaks NM Courtesy US NPS, Zach Schierl, Photographer
Four planets and the Moon are visible in the twilight sky over ancient Bristlecone Pine trees at Cedar Breaks NM
Courtesy US NPS, Zach Schierl, Photographer
Christopher Monz, professor in the Department of Environment and Society in the Quinney College of Natural Resource at USU joined with five other scientists who have all worked on issues of noise pollution and light pollution to compile the book, “Natural Quiet and Natural Darkness: The “New” Resources of the National Park.”
title=”Four planets and the Moon are visible in the twilight sky over ancient Bristlecone Pine trees at Cedar Breaks NM Courtesy US NPS, Zach Schierl, Photographer”
The Summer Milky Way as seen from Point Supreme at Cedar Breaks NM. The landscape is illuminated by the light of a 1st Quarter moon. Courtesy US NPS, Zach Schierl, Photographer
The Summer Milky Way as seen from Point Supreme at Cedar Breaks NM. The landscape is illuminated by the light of a 1st Quarter moon.
Courtesy US NPS, Zach Schierl, Photographer
Monz explains, “[We wanted] to compile, in one place, the best science on both the social and ecological dimensions regarding the importance of the resources of darkness and quiet, and the consequences of them slowly disappearing in our most precious protected areas – the national parks.”

The book gathered many interesting findings.

Visitors enjoying a quiet day at Hovenweep National Monument Courtesy & Copyright Shauna Leavitt
Visitors enjoying a quiet day at Hovenweep National Monument
Courtesy & Copyright Shauna Leavitt
One is the concept of “listening area” which is the distance an individual (human or animal) can hear normal sounds and calls that they’re evolved and adapted to. For a bird species it might be a mating call, for deer it might an alert response from a predator.

As noise increases the listening area may decrease dramatically.

Monz said, “In the United States noise from roads has increased three fold since 1970.”

A three decibel increase in noise results in a 50 percent decrease in listening area. If there is a 10 decibel increase, the result is a staggering 90 percent decrease in listening area.

Monz explains, “If you put noise into the environment there is the potential for significant ecological implications, particularly for wildlife. They can no longer be reliant on the sense of hearing to carry out normal activities…some species will move out of those noisy areas to quieter environments which creates a displacement effect.”

For humans, this means we have less opportunities to engage with the sights and sounds of nature.

One success story outlined in the book occurred in Muir Woods National Monument in California. Monz said, “Simply by putting up signs which raised the visitor’s awareness of the environment they were in, and the importance of quiet for other visitors, the noise decreased by 2 decibels. This gave folks an opportunity to experience better natural quiet environment and a little bit more biodiversity from the standpoint of hearing bird calls from the surrounding forest.”

The book also provides ideas for managing the resource of darkness in the National parks.

Guests enjoying Arches National Park Courtesy & Copyright Shauna Leavitt
Guests enjoying Arches National Park
Courtesy & Copyright Shauna Leavitt
Monz said, “Right now 80% of the world’s population lives in locations where there is some compromise of natural darkness…most will never see the Milky Way.”

Cedar Breaks National Monument, which has the highest star gazing site at 10,500 feet, received an award from The International-Dark Sky Association (IDA) for preserving its Dark skies.

The authors of “Natural Quiet and Natural Darkness” hope the book will get in the right hands to provide park managers with this easily accessible tool where they can find the best science and actionable ideas to increase quiet and darkness in our National Parks.

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

Credits:
Photos:
    Courtesy US NPS, Zach Schierl, Photographer, Education Specialist, Cedar Breaks National Monument
    Courtesy & Copyright Shauna Leavitt,
Audio: Courtesy and Copyright
Text: Shauna Leavitt, USGS Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University

Sources & Additional Reading

Star Gazing, Cedar Breaks National Monument, US National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/cebr/star-gazing.htm

Cedar Breaks National Monument Designated as an International Dark Sky Park, https://www.nps.gov/cebr/learn/news/cedar-breaks-national-monument-designated-as-an-international-dark-sky-park.htm

Burkitt, Bree, Cedar Breaks recognized as Dark Sky Park, The Spectrum, https://wlna-webservice.gannettdigital.com/articleservice/view/98980850/michigan-state-spartans/24.3.57/iphone

Spotlight – The Cedar Breaks National Monument Master Astronomer Program, Colorado Plateau Dark Sky Cooperative, https://cpdarkskies.org/2018/10/17/spotlight-the-cedar-breaks-national-monument-master-astronomer-program/

Yellowstone Elk’s response to Wolves

Yellowstone Elk’s response to Wolves: Female Yellowstone Elk Courtesy & Copyright Bonnie McDonald
Female Yellowstone Elk Courtesy & Copyright Bonnie McDonald
Arguably the most scientifically-important (and controversial) elk herd in the world, because it has been scrutinized and studied the longest, is in Yellowstone National Park.

The first professional study of the herd was started in 1916 and the herd has been at the center of debates about the forces that shape wildland ecosystems ever since.

Yellowstone Elk’s response to Wolves: Spring Elk Herd Courtesy Utah DWR, Tom Becker, Photographer
Spring Elk Herd
Courtesy Utah DWR, Tom Becker, Photographer
In addition to providing insight into ecosystems, the Northern Yellowstone elk have been an important source population for restoring other elk herds in the United States and Canada where they were eliminated during the late 1800s. Many elk herds in North America trace their ancestry to translocated elk from northern Yellowstone.

Yellowstone Elk’s response to Wolves: Utah Cow & Bull Elk Courtesy & Copyright Greg Sheehan
Utah Cow & Bull Elk
Courtesy & Copyright Greg Sheehan
The herd has a seasonal migration route that stretches from the Paradise Valley in southwest Montana to the southern boundary of Yellowstone National Park – a distance of 80 miles.

Prior to the Yellowstone’s establishment in 1872, market hunting decimated the elk herd, reducing it to a few thousand animals. Through the 20th century the population gradually grew and in 1994 it reached a peak of over 19,000.

Yellowstone Elk’s response to Wolves: Collared Yellowstone Wolf Courtesy & Copyright Matt Metz
Collared Yellowstone Wolf Courtesy & Copyright Matt Metz
A year later, the first of 41 grey wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone.

People wondered what impact these wolves would have on the Yellowstone herd since elk are the main source of food for the canines.

Dan MacNulty, associate professor in the Department of Wildland Resources in the Quinney College of Natural Resource at USU, who has been studying Yellowstone wolves for the past two decades said, “people were concerned wolves were inducing a landscape of fear which was changing the way elk were using their habitat.”

They imagined the poor creatures hiding in less than ideal habitats because they had been chased off by the wolves.

However, studies conducted by MacNulty and others have since revealed that elk continue to maintain regular access to all their usual habitats irrespective of wolves. In one recent study, for example, MacNulty and his team found adult female elk established and maintained winter home ranges without regard to several measures of wolf predation risk including the density of wolves and the risky areas where wolves often kill elk.

Yellowstone Elk’s response to Wolves: Female Yellowston Elk Defending Herself From a Wolf Courtesy & Copyright Robert Landis
Female Yellowston Elk Defending Herself From a Wolf
Courtesy & Copyright Robert Landis
Elk coexist with wolves in a variety of ways. One way is elk use the riskier areas of the landscape when wolves are resting, which is in the afternoon and, surprisingly, at night. Wolves don’t have ideal vison for nocturnal hunting, so they often settle down after sunset and resume hunting at dawn. These nightly lulls in wolf activity allow elk to graze the open grasslands in relative safety.

But even when wolves are on the prowl, elk don’t seem to go out their way to avoid them. MacNulty’s recent study found the rate at which elk encountered wolves was no different from what was expected if elk simply ignored wolves. This is possible because elk often survive their encounters with wolves, owing to their larger size, aggressive demeanor, and herding behavior. As a result, elk seem to place greater emphasis on finding food than on avoiding wolves.

The emerging picture is that the effect of wolves on the northern Yellowstone elk herd is defined by wolves eating rather than scaring elk. How much this consumptive effect actually matters for elk population growth is the focus of ongoing research. One clue that it may not matter too much is the elk population has been steadily growing since 2012.

MacNulty cautions that we should recognize the complexity of the Yellowstone ecosystem and resist the urge to jump to conclusions, and instead rely on patient data-gathering to test what may seem obvious.

Nature can be full of surprises.

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

Credits:
Photos:
    Courtesy & Copyright Dan MacNulty
    Courtesy & Copyright Tom Becker
    Courtesy & Copyright Greg Sheehan
Audio: Courtesy and Copyright Kevin Colver
Text: Shauna Leavitt

Sources & Additional Reading

Hillyard, Traci, MacNulty, Dan, Yellowstone Elk Don’t Budge for Wolves say Scientists, Utah State Today, Utah State University, Tuesday, Mar. 26, 2019, https://www.usu.edu/today/?id=58299

Hillyard, Traci, Cotterill, Gavin, Hidden Costs of Disease to Greater Yellowstone Elk, Utah State Today, Utah State University, Monday, Oct. 29, 2018, https://www.usu.edu/today/?id=58055

Hillyard, Traci, MacNulty, Dan, Kohl, Michel, Yellowstone’s ‘Landscape of Fear’ Not So Scary After All, Utah State Today, Utah State University, Tuesday, Friday, Jun. 22, 2018, https://www.usu.edu/today/?id=57785

Elk, Yellowstone National Park, US National Park Service, US Department of the Interior, https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/nature/elk.htm

French, Brett, Famous Yellowstone elk herd rebounds two decades after wolf reintroduction, tar-Tribune Feb 3, 2018, https://trib.com/outdoors/famous-yellowstone-elk-herd-rebounds-two-decades-after-wolf-reintroduction/article_0f7eefd9-484b-5060-a68d-2ebfbed2b054.html

Our Invasive Phragmites

Our Invasive Phragmites: Great Salt Lake Phragmites Courtesy & Copyright Karin Kettenring
Great Salt Lake Phragmites
Courtesy & Copyright Karin Kettenring
Those unfamiliar with the history of the Utah’s wetlands may see Phragmites and say, “What a beautiful, elegant plant! It looks so graceful blowing along the shore.”

However, the plant’s attractiveness and ability to absorb pollutants may not compensate for its negative impacts.

Phragmites is an invasive perennial grass that now thrives in much of the wetlands around the Great Salt Lake and other marshes in northern Utah. It grows in dense clusters and normally reaches 5 to 10 feet in height. If the conditions are right it can reach 15 feet.

The patches of grass are so dense that wetland managers are called out each year to rescue duck hunters – who are lost in the Phragmites.

Karin Kettenring, associate professor of wetland ecology in the Department of Watershed Sciences at USU and her research team have been studying Utah Phragmites for the past decade.

Kettenring explains why Phragmites is a concern, “We fear it is fundamentally changing the habitat of Great Salt Lake wetlands which are renowned for being a home for migratory birds including waterfowl and shore birds.”

The exotic grass most likely started in the Great Salt Lake wetlands after the flooding of 1983. The flood washed out the marshes. When the water levels receded, the salty water had destroyed all the native vegetation in the wetlands. Phragmites then moved in. By 2011, the exotic grass had spread over 24,000 acres.

Mowing Phragmites Courtesy & Copyright Karin Kettenring
Mowing Phragmites
Courtesy & Copyright Karin Kettenring
Scientists believe humans inadvertently brought Phragmites to Utah, since birds don’t migrate East and West, and the birds usually don’t eat the seeds. Someone’s boat may have transported the seeds into Utah. They sat dormant in the soil until the conditions were perfect, then the spread of Phragmites began.

Today an average small patch of Phragmites, about 20 feet square, can spread a couple yards a year just from the stems it sends out above and below the ground. However, research has shown it’s not the stems that cause the most reproduction – but the seeds.

Karin_Kettenring-in-the-Great-Salt-Lake-Wetlands Courtesy & Copyright Karin Kettenring
Karin_Kettenring-in-the-Great-Salt-Lake-Wetlands
Courtesy & Copyright Karin Kettenring
Karen Mock, associate professor in the Department of Wildland Resources and a long-term collaborator on this project helped Kettenring with the genetic work.

They tested the genetics of a lot of Phragmites pulled from the same patches and found many different genotypes – proving the plants came from different seeds, not the stems of neighboring plants.

With these results, Kettenring’s lab discovered the best way to control the invasive grass is to first control the seed production by mowing the grass mid-summer to keep it from spreading. Then in the fall spraying the area with herbicide three years in a row. An herbicide approved for use in wetlands can be used – such as Rodeo.

If the Phragmites has been there only a few years then the seeds of the native vegetation will still be in the soil, and they’ll come back on their own.

However, if the Phragmites has been there for a long time then re-seeding of native plants will be necessary.

To determine the best way to re-seed wetlands, Kettenring partnered with Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Utah Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands and David England – one of Kettenring’s past graduate students. England has spent extensive time in the lab determining how to help seeds germinate.

Emily Martin, Kettenring’s current graduate student will also help with the UDWR reseeding as she searches for techniques to make seeding more effective.

Ultimately their goal is to restore native plant communities to keep Phragmites from coming back and restore habitat for important migratory birds.

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

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy & Copyright Karin Kettenring
Audio: Courtesy and Copyright Kevin Colver
Text: Shauna Leavitt

Sources & Additional Reading

How to control Phragmites
Kettenring, Karin, Rupp, Larry, Whitesides, Ralph, Hazelton, Eric, Phragmites Control at the Urban/Rural Interface, 2014, https://works.bepress.com/karin_kettenring/92/

Extensive readings about Phragmites:
https://works.bepress.com/karin_kettenring/

Video: USU researchers mowing Phragmites in the Great Salt Lake wetlands. The passenger is Chad Cranney a past graduate student of Karin Kettenring’s:
https://bft.usu.edu/rqcq9

*****

Larese-Casanova, Mark, Phragmites-Utah’s Grassy Invader, Wild About Utah, August 23, 2012, https://wildaboututah.org/phragmites-utahs-grassy-invader/

Common Reed, Phragmites australis. National Invasive Species Information Center, USDA National Agricultural Library, https://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/aquatics/commonreed.shtml

Phragmites Factsheet, US Fish & Wildlife Service, https://www.fws.gov/GOMCP/pdfs/phragmitesQA_factsheet.pdf

Phragmites Phragmites australis, Aquatic Invasive Species, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Sept 17, 2013, https://wildlife.utah.gov/habitat/ans/phragmites.php

Phragmites Phragmites australis, Plants Database, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service(NRCS), https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=phau7