Cougars in Utah

Cougars in Utah: FemaleF43, Butterfield Canyon, 2009 Courtesy and Copyright David Stoner
Female F43, Butterfield Canyon, 2009
Courtesy and Copyright David Stoner
Cougars are more widely distributed in Utah than many residents realize. These shy cats are found across the state. They roam from the high Uinta Mountains to the dry southern deserts.

David Stoner, assistant professor in the Department of Wildland Resources in the Quinney College of Natural Resources who has studied cougars for the past two decades said, “[Cougars] are common in terms of their distribution, but are rare in terms of their numbers. They live in many places but there are never a lot of them, typically occurring at densities of 1 adult per 20 square miles.

Stoner continues, “They’re just a big cat. Most of us are familiar with a house cats, and know how they behave, their movements, and idiosyncrasies. The main difference is their size. Cougars can be as large as humans [males usually range between 110 to 180 lbs.] They have evolved to take prey larger than themselves. You see this in the size of their muzzle – the mouth, nose and jaw. All of that is much larger in a cougar relative to its own body than a house cat. This becomes even more dramatic in the really big cats like tigers and lions with very large muzzles.

Stoner partnered with Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) to study cougars in two Utah areas, one of which was Monroe Mountain in Fishlake National Forest.

Mother named F61 (face showing), daughter (F58c) (facing away) Approx 1.5 yrs old in January 2011. Location: Kennecott mine, Bingham Canyon in the Oquirrh Mountains, Utah Courtesy and Copyright McLain Mecham, Photographer
Mother named F61 (face showing), daughter (F58c) (facing away) Approx 1.5 yrs old in January 2011. Location: Kennecott mine, Bingham Canyon in the Oquirrh Mountains, Utah
Courtesy and Copyright McLain Mecham, Photographer
The researchers noticed an unusual movement pattern of juveniles on the mountain. When the young were ready to leave their mothers they could have migrated in any direction to find good habitat but they disproportionately chose to go either NE or SE. This perplexed the researchers.

At about the same time the cougar research was winding down, DWR was starting a mule deer monitoring program.

Stoner said, “We were very fortunate. What DWR found was the Monroe Mountain deer herd were mostly migrating NE and SE. I looked back at our data and found the cougars who were leaving Monroe were going in the same direction as the deer migrations, the young cougars were tracking the deer herds.

Due to their hunting methods and nutritional needs, cougars require large home ranges. Researchers gathered data from NV, UT and AZ to represent a wide range of environmental conditions from very dry systems close to Las Vegas to relatively wet systems along Wasatch front.

Stoner explains, “We found the size of the home ranges…varied with precipitation. The wettest areas the cougars had the smallest home ranges, because of the abundance of prey in these highly productive systems. Females tend to have ranges strictly based on the food they need. The male’s range is much larger because they are looking for breeding opportunities, so they overlap numerous females. These ranges can be quite large. One collared male had a home range of over 2,500 square miles, which was visible on maps at the scale of the entire western United States.”

When it comes to human interactions with cougars, Utah has been very fortunate. In the past 100 years, no humans have been killed by a cougar. In hopes of maintaining this record, DWR keeps safety tips on its website. The most important tip is to never run from a cougar, this will cause them to instinctively think you are prey and begin the chase. If you have a child with you pick them up. Stand firm and look intimidating, let it know you’ll fight back. Your goal is to scare them off.

With the wise actions of humans, Stoner and DWR hope this majestic cat will continue to flourish in Utah.

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

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy & Copyright © David Stoner
Audio: Courtesy
Principal Investigator: David Stoner, https://qcnr.usu.edu/directory_cv/D.Stoner_CV_10-2016.pdf
Text: Shauna Leavitt, USGS Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University

Sources & Additional Reading

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

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

Boling, Josh, Wild Cats, Wild About Utah, December 10, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/wild-cats/

Löe J. and E. Röskaft. 2004. Large Carnivores and Human Safety: A Review. AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment Aug 2004 : Vol. 33, Issue 6, pg(s) 283-288 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/8328070_Large_Carnivores_and_Human_Safety_A_Review

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

POCKING: Potentially the “best” technique for restoring remote canyon landscapes during mine reclamations

Pocking for Cottonwood-Wilberg mine reclamation Courtesy & Copyright Chris Brown
Pocking for Cottonwood-Wilberg mine reclamation
Courtesy & Copyright Chris Brown
In Utah, when a coal mine closes, the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining (OGM) is the agency responsible for overseeing the reclamation.

PacifiCorp is a mining company that provides electrical utility to one million customers in Utah, Idaho and Wyoming via Rocky Mountain Power. When it submitted the Cottonwood-Wilberg mine reclamation proposal, it claimed a sedimentation pond which catches run off, would not be needed. OGM was skeptical and initially rejected the plan.
Dennis Oakley, senior mine engineer at PacifiCorp said, “We explored the state and federal regulations and found there was some latitude if we could show we were using the best technology currently available.”

Tom Thompson, GIS Manager at OGM said, “Technology has come a long way, if we leverage it correctly we could do a lot better for our environment.”

The method PacifiCorp claimed as the best technology available was deep gouging, or “pocking”; a technique used to prevent erosion and stimulate vegetation growth on steep sloped landscapes.

To use pocking, the natural canyon slopes are first restored, then pocks three feet in diameter and one-and-a-half feet deep are dug into the slopes next to each other in a random and discontinuous fashion. The landscape soon resembles the surface of a golf ball with thousands of dimples.

Green dyed hydro-mulching, which contains native seeds, moisture and a protective layer of mulch is then sprayed over the entire pocked landscape.

When it rains the pocks capture the water, forming mini ponds. The moisture is slowly absorbed into the ground, preventing run off and giving the seeds a moist environment for growth.

Each year the sides of the pocks slowly erode into themselves, and the vegetation becomes established and spreads. Eventually the pocks fill with sediment and fade into a natural looking stable slope.

If pocking is the best technology currently available – then OGM wanted to know.

With the help of PacifiCorp, OGM set up the Cottonwood-Wilberg mine as a research site to determine the efficiency of pocking.

To add additional expertise to the research, OGM applied for Utah Legislature appropriated funds, to access to the knowledge of Doug Ramsey, the director of the Remote Sensing and GIS Laboratory, in the Quinney College of Natural Resources at Utah State University, and his graduate student Chris Brown.

Ramsey and Brown explain, The RS/GIS lab is evaluating the pocks by using drone imagery of the entire landscape to create 3D models and topographic maps that identify where the vegetation is growing, and the depth of each pock across multiple seasons and years to show if the pocks are eroding as expected.

PacifiCorp installed monitoring devices around the reclaimed site so it could measure the amount of precipitation, the vegetation growth over time, and the sediment load of the runoff above and below the disturbed areas.

Oakley explains, “It’s our theory that the sediment levels of the background runoff will be equal to, or less than the runoff at the bottom of the disturbed area.”

Ramsey visited the site in June 2019 and found vegetation was already growing in the bottom of the pocks.

Data from the site will be gathered and analyzed over the next few years. A key part of this monitoring work will be a manual describing the drone data collection and analysis methods so OGM can establish a monitoring protocol for other reclamation sites.

Keenan Storrar, hydrologist from OGM, said, “We hope this research on the pocking technique, which PacifiCorp helped develop, will be published for future operators use.”

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

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

Sources & Additional Reading

Cottonwood-Wilberg Mine, Emery County, Utah Reclamation, US Department of the Interior, https://eros.usgs.gov/doi-remote-sensing-activities/2018/osm/cottonwood-wilberg-mine-emery-county-utah-reclamation

Cottonwood-Wilberg Mine, Utah Division of Oil, Gas & Mining, Utah Department of Natural Resources, https://www.ogm.utah.gov/coal/minedetail.php?C0150019

Lower San Juan – Piute Farms Waterfall

Lower San Juan Piute Farms Waterfall, 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
Audio: Courtesy Western Soundscape Archive, University of Utah, Sound provided by The National Park Service, licensed under CCA-ND
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/

Building a Warm Home for Endangered Razorback Suckers’ Young

Building a Warm Home for Endangered Razorback Suckers’ Young: 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
Building a Warm Home for Endangered Razorback Suckers’ Young: 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.

Building a Warm Home for Endangered Razorback Suckers’ Young: 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.”

Building a Warm Home for Endangered Razorback Suckers’ Young: 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.

Building a Warm Home for Endangered Razorback Suckers’ Young: 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/