Aspen Seedlings on the Brian Head Fire Footprint

Aspen Seedlings on the Brian Head Fire Footprint: A few remaining aspen trees standing after the Brian Head fire Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer
A few remaining aspen trees standing after the Brian Head fire
Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer

The rustling noise of wind blowing through aspen trees is a sweet sound for many Utahns, reminding them of home.

The quaking aspen became Utah’s state tree in 2014.   It grows in all 29 counties and is recognized by its off-white bark with black spots and streaks. In the fall, aspen’s heart-shaped leaves turn bright yellow and make a vibrant splash of color against backdrops of green conifers and rocky ridges.

In addition to its aesthetic value, aspen helps to create habitat for wildlife, provide shelter for livestock, and increase bird and plant diversity. In a fire, aspen burns less readily than other trees, so aspen forests can help reduce fire risk.

Aspen seedlings growing between fallen wood from the Brian Head fire Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer
Aspen seedlings growing between fallen wood from the Brian Head fire
Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer

The aspens reproduce in two different ways.  The most common way is they make root sprouts called “suckers”, which are genetically identical to the root, and can lead to the formation of a group of identical trees called a “clone”. 

The second less common way is when aspen produce seeds, the seedlings have a mixture of genes from two parent trees.   Aspen do not produce seeds every year, and seedlings can have a hard time getting established in dry soils.

Aspen seedling from the Brian Head fire footprint. Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer
Aspen seedling from the Brian Head fire footprint. Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer

Rumor has it an early USU Forestry professor offered an A to any student who could find an aspen seedling in the wild, making the point of how rare the seedlings were.   However, research at USU and elsewhere over the past decade is showing that aspen seedlings may be more common than we think, especially after fires. 

In the summer of 2017, the Brian Head fire burned over 70,000 acres in the high country of southern Utah.  Aspen is already playing a large role in the regeneration of this forest, producing a thicket of suckers under preexisting aspen

In July of this year, homeowners Mike and Julie Saemisch “Samish” in Brian Head, Utah were walking through some surviving aspens in the fire footprint,  when they noticed something unusual and surprising – these aspens were producing an extraordinary amount of seeds.

They brought this to the attention of USU Professors Larissa Yocom, a fire ecologist, and Karen Mock, an aspen geneticist, both in the Department of Wildland Resources, in the Quinney College of Natural Resources. 

Yocom said, “It looked like snow in July, there was so much aspen cotton draped over every surface.”

Mock visited the site in September to see whether these seeds were germinating.  She explains, “Seedlings were everywhere – thousands and thousands of them, including in places where aspen did not previously exist”. 

Aspen seedling growing on the Brian Head fire footprint. Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer
Aspen seedling growing on the Brian Head fire footprint.
Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer
Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer

According to Yocom, “Fire has created a window of opportunity [for aspen] by opening up growing space [and decreasing competition]. It removed trees, shrubs, and understory plants that compete with small aspen.  The [seedlings] have nutrients, water, sunlight, and open soil free from fallen leaves and vegetation.”

Aspen seedling growing near charred tree from the Brian Head fire Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer
Aspen seedling growing near charred tree from the Brian Head fire
Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer

Mock explains, “All the right ingredients came together for this to happen: fire, seed production, and good monsoon rain timing.  Events like this can present an opportunity for adaptive evolution, range expansion and range shifts in aspen, and those events can leave a mark for hundreds or thousands of years”.

Yocom adds, “A post-fire environment can be harsh with high temperatures at the soil surface and little shade.  But if the seedlings survive through their most vulnerable stage they can grow quickly and may establish dominance across a huge area in the Brian Head Fire footprint.”

Yocom and Mock hope to study the survival of these aspen over the coming years, to find out which aspens survive and how big of an impact herbivory has on the suckers and seedlings.  They hope that this research will help guide future post-fire management practices to encourage strong aspen regeneration after fires.

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

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy & Copyright © Karen Mock, Wildland Resources, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University, https://qcnr.usu.edu/directory/mock_karen
Text: Shauna Leavitt, USGS Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University

Sources & Additional Reading

Brian Head Fire Rehabilitation Project, USDA Forest Service, https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=52918

Wildland Fire, Managing Land, USDA Forest Service, https://www.fs.fed.us/managing-land/fire

Donations, Working With Us, USDA Forest Service, https://www.fs.fed.us/working-with-us/donations

After the Fire, Pioneer Fire Reforestation on the Boise National Forest, USDA Forest Service, https://www.fs.fed.us/science-technology/fire/after-fire

Proposed Beaver Holding Facility in Millville, Utah

Beaver Holding Facility: Beaver, Castor canadensis, Courtesy FWS, Steve Hillebrand, photographer
Beaver, Castor canadensis, Courtesy FWS, Steve Hillebrand, photographer
Nuisance beavers, who in recent years were viewed as pests and quickly disposed of, are now in high demand.

A growing number of ranchers, and federal and state agencies are asking to have beavers translocated to their lands to act as affordable ecosystem engineers to restore riparian habitats, hold water on the dry arid lands, and restore creeks to their historic condition.

Currently the number of requests for live beavers outnumbers the amount of available animals.

Spawn Creek Beaver Dams Courtesy & Copyright Joe Wheaton, Photographer
Spawn Creek Beaver Dams
Courtesy & Copyright Joe Wheaton, Photographer
Nick Bouwes, Assistant Professor in Watershed Sciences at Utah State University said, “To assist in fulfilling this need, USU’s Department of Watershed Sciences and Department of Wildland Resources in the Quinney College of Natural Resources is working with Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) to build a beaver holding facility a few miles south of USU’s main campus.”

The architects are drafting blueprints, consultants are analyzing the needs of beavers in captivity, and scientists are seeking funding for the project.

According to Joseph Wheaton, Associate Professor in the Department of Watershed Sciences, “We plan to build a place where [beaver] that would typically be lethally removed, will be given a second chance by moving them to places where their engineering skills will be helpful in stream restoration and …where they won’t get into trouble.”

Beaver Cutting Courtesty & Copyright Joe Wheaton, Photographer
Beaver Cutting
Courtesty & Copyright Joe Wheaton, Photographer
Bouwes adds, “It’s…not as easy as simply catching and releasing a beaver. A lot goes on to increase their ability to survive and stay put after the release. They are social animals, so trapping a whole family unit is the best method. If a single beaver is released, they tend to take off and look for other beavers.”

Researchers hope the facility will expand to be an educational tool where they can hold workshops, study the beavers themselves, and educate the public with tours and visiting hours.


The project includes a design for a mobile trapping facility. This will allow the researchers to travel around the state trapping beavers that are currently in incompatible locations.

Bouwes explains, “It’s basically a trailer with kennels to keep the beavers cool. They are…sensitive to heat. If we go off location for any length of time, being able to keep the beavers cool and [safe]…will be very useful.”

When the trailer arrives back at the holding facility, scientists will move the beavers to kennels that have a slight slope and a divot at the end that serves as a small pond where the beavers can swim.

Nate Norman, consultant on the project from Balance Environmental, adds, “We are not looking for this to be a new home, we just want it to be safe and comfortable for the beavers until we can get them back into the wild.”

Researchers will quarantine the beavers for 72 hours to ensure they are free of disease and parasites, before managers move them to a new watershed.

Once the quarantine is complete, scientists will use the Beaver Assessment Tool to determine where the beaver family would most likely succeed.

Bouwes explains, “This [tool] looks at all the stream networks across Utah and identifies…the best place to re-introduce beaver. It evaluates the dam building capacity of a stream, and identifies places of potential conflict.”

The success of this project is dependent on its partners: DWR provides the expertise and oversight, USU supplies the land and research facilities, and ranchers allow access to streams for placing the beavers.

When the beaver holding facility is open, scientists and managers hope to be translocating 50-100 beavers a year.

Those interested in learning more about beavers and stream restoration are invited to attend a workshop at USU in October.

Look for details at restoration.usu.edu.

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

Hellstern, Ron, Leave it to Beaver, Wild About Utah, July 30, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/leave-it-to-beaver/

Leavitt, Shauna, Beaver–Helping Keep Water on Drying Lands, Wild About Utah, April 17, 2017, https://wildaboututah.org/the-beaver-helping-keep-water-on-drying-lands/

Strand, Holly, Beavers: The Original Army Corps of Engineers, Wild About Utah, August 16, 2012, https://wildaboututah.org/beavers-the-original-army-corps-of-engineers/

Beaver Monitoring App, Utah State University Extension, https://extension.usu.edu/utahwaterwatch/citizenscience/beavermonitoringapp/

Fluvial Habitats Center/Ecogeomorphology & Topographic Analysis Laboratory, Joe Wheaton et. al. http://etal.joewheaton.org/

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/

Decreasing the Habitat Risks of Utah’s Southern Sage-Grouse

Decreasing Habitat Risks Utah’s Southern Sage-Grouse: Juniper Grouse=grouse in a marginal area pre-treatment. You can see where one tree has been mulched. There is little sagebrush or grass to provide cover for the grouse. Courtesy and copyright Nicole Frey, Photographer
Juniper Grouse = grouse in a marginal area pre-treatment. You can see where one tree has been mulched. There is little sagebrush or grass to provide cover for the grouse.
Courtesy & © Nicole Frey, Photographer
In the past decade, over 45,000 acres of land in southern Utah have had conservation treatments by removing the encroaching pinyon-juniper forest and allowing the native grasses and sagebrush to return.
With the use of GPS units, scientists and manager are able to witness the positive impacts these treatments are having on Utah’s Greater sage-grouse population. They monitor the movement patterns of the grouse and determine how the birds use their seasonal habitats throughout the year.

Decreasing Habitat Risks Utah’s Southern Sage-Grouse: Hen on a nest. This is what a nest looks like in good habitat. You can see that the brush gives cover from the top and the grass and forbs provide cover from the sides Gourtesy and copyright Nicole Frey, Photographer
Hen on a nest. This is what a nest looks like in good habitat. You can see that the brush gives cover from the top and the grass and forbs provide cover from the sides
Gourtesy & © Nicole Frey, Photographer
Female and male grouse have similar habitat needs during the winter, but choose different landscapes when their needs change during the nesting and chick-rearing seasons.

Wildlife managers call the grouse a “landscape species” because they have to manage a variety of different communities for the grouse to thrive.

During the months of January and February when the habitat is at its coldest, females and males have the same needs – to stay warm, find food, and avoid predators.

Fortunately, sagebrush provide the resources to meet all these needs.

While grouse huddle under the brush for protection from frigid winds, deepening snow and roaming predators, they avoid having to search for food since the bulk of their nourishment comes from the leaves of the sagebrush. The grouse simply reach up, nibble on the leaves, and remain safe in their protective sagebrush tent.
When they have consumed all the leaves from one bush, they simply move to another sagebrush.

Decreasing Habitat Risks Utah’s Southern Sage-Grouse: Little Grouse Family=hen and chicks in treated habitat. It has healthy sagebrush and a grasses and forbs provide food and visual cover Courtesy and copyright Nicole Frey, Photographer
Little Grouse Family = hen and chicks in treated habitat. It has healthy sagebrush and a grasses and forbs provide food and visual cover
Courtesy & © Nicole Frey, Photographer
In the spring, the needs of the females change dramatically. Once their chicks have hatched the females search for a moist place where the chicks can eat a variety of bugs and green vegetation to receive the necessary nutrients for fast growth.

By fall, the chicks are grown and the adult females return to the dry sagebrush habitat and prepare for winter.
The biggest struggle sage grouse have in the southern region is a fragmented habitat. They have to fly dangerous distances to reach the variety of habitats they need.

Decreasing Habitat Risks Utah’s Southern Sage-Grouse: Grouse with a GPS transmitter Gourtesy and copyright Nicole Frey, Photographer
Grouse with a GPS transmitter
Gourtesy & © Nicole Frey, Photographer
Nick Frey, extension associate professor in the Department of Wildland Resources at USU, has researched sage grouse for the past 13 years. She explains this struggle, ”To get to the next tiny pocket of habitat [the grouse] have to fly over forests and high ridges, which endanger their lives. Prior to the treatments, it was difficult for me to have a bird stay alive for an entire year, now I have birds I have tracked for more than three years…They’re able to find better resources and healthier habitats without putting themselves at risk so often.”

One of the first conservation treatments occurred in Sink Valley in 2005.

Prior to this, female Greater sage grouse in Sink Valley would spend the summers in the agricultural fields south of Alton, which were laced with danger. A couple of times grouse got bailed up and researchers would find the transmitters in a hay bale. At other times, an eagle would carry off birds and the transmitter would be found with a hole in the side from the eagle’s claw.

Within two years after the Sink Valley treatment, researchers stopped finding females anywhere close the agricultural fields. The sage grouse were now able to find grasses and forbs in close proximity to their nests.
Rhett Boswell, Habitat Biologist at Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, who created management tools using Frey’s GPS data explains, “With this GPS [data] we have learned so much, it keeps opening up new opportunities to refine our management prescriptions. With this best available science, we can identify which management treatments have the greatest positive impact and create resource selection models to plan future management.”
In other words, the future of Utah’s Greater Sage Grouse is looking bright.

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

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

Sources & Additional Reading

To learn more about Utah sage-grouse conservation, please go to www.utahcbcp.org.

Leavitt, Shauna, Greater Sage-Grouse in Utah, Wild About Utah, June 12, 2017, https://wildaboututah.org/greater-sage-grouse-in-utah/

Leavitt, Shauna, South Canyon Sage-Grouse, Wild About Utah, January 22, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/south-canyon-sage-grouse/