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

Winter Bird Feeding

Red-breasted Nuthatch mining out the nest site Photo courtesy of Utah Division of Wildlife Resources
Red-breasted Nuthatch mining out the nest site
Photo courtesy of Utah Division of Wildlife Resources
This time of year, we see a cast of characters flying among the trees and bushes as they search for food and a place to nestle to conserve warmth and energy.

Black-Capped Chickadee Copyright Stephen Peterson, Photographer
Black-Capped Chickadee
Copyright Stephen Peterson, Photographer
One of these characters is the Black-capped Chickadee a small bird with a black head, white cheeks and cream colored feathers under its grey wings. The Chickadees are found in all 29 Utah counties.

Dark-eyed 'Oregon' Junco Male, Junco hyemalis montanus, Courtesy and copyright 2008 Ryan P. O'Donnell, Phorographer
Dark-eyed ‘Oregon’ Junco Male, Junco hyemalis montanus, Courtesy and copyright 2008 Ryan P. O’Donnell, Phorographer
Another member of the cast is the Dark-eyed Junco, a medium-sized American sparrow with a neat-flashy look. It has solid slate-grey feathers over most of its body except for its pink sides and white underbody. The Junco is found throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico.

The third cast member is the Red-breasted Nuthatch which has a pale red chest, grey wings and a black feathered head with stripes of white below and above the eyes. Its tail is short, its bill is long and it’s one of the few birds that climbs headfirst down trees.

Red Breasted Nuthatch Courtesy US FWS Dave Menke, Photographer
Red Breasted Nuthatch
Courtesy US FWS
Dave Menke, Photographer
All three birds find the majority of their winter nourishment from nuts and seeds, since most insects are hiding in dormancy or are dead.

When a harsh winter hits and heavy snow fall covers their natural food source, the birds can rely on bird feeders to find nourishment.

Although winter bird feeders are beneficial, some Utah residents may hesitate putting out nuts and seeds for the following reasons:

One, they worry the birds may become dependent on the feeders.

Clark Rushing, assistant professor in Department of Wildland Resources in the Quinney College of Natural Resources at USU explains, “In a typical winter these birds don’t need the extra food from a bird feeder to make it through the winter, but…when the snow covers up their [natural food source] they rely on the feeders which increase the birds’ survival rate over the winter. When [snow] conditions [return to normal]… they go right back to feeding on natural sources.”

Another concern some Utah residents have is if the feeders will impact the birds’ migratory behaviors. They worry species who normally migrate might stick around for the winter because they found food.

Rushing says, “This is not a huge concern because most of these bird species use photo period as a que to migrate, which means they start migrating in the Fall when the days start getting shorter and food is still relatively abundant – so food is not the que that these species use to migrate.”

When starting the hobby of winter bird feeding, there are a few good tips to remember.

First, is the importance of keeping your feeders clean. Some diseases can be spread by bird feeders, so keeping them clean is essential.

According to Rushing, “The recommendation is to take [a feeder] down every two weeks, empty it and give it a light cleaning. [Avoid using] harsh detergents. If you see evidence of mildew or mold then a diluted bleach mixture, which you then rinse off, can be really beneficial. Let the feeder completely dry before you put bird seed in it. When [the feeder is wet] is when you have the most problems, so keep it dry.”

Having a variety of feeders and foods is the best way to attract an assortment of birds to your yard during the winter months.

Rushing adds, “The great thing about bird feeding is it connects people to wildlife.”

It’s one of the few ways you can enjoy watching wildlife out your own dining room window throughout the cold winter months.

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

Credits:
Photos:
 Red-Breasted Nuthatch, Courtesy Utah Division of Wildlife Resources
 Red-Breasted Nuthatch, Courtesy US FWS, Dave Menke, Photographer
 Black-Capped Chickadee, Courtesy and Copyright Stephen Peterson, Photographer
 Junco, Courtesy and copyright 2008 Ryan P. O'Donnell, Photographer
Audio: Includes audio courtesy and copyright Kevin Colver
Text: Shauna Leavitt, USGS Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University

Sources & Additional Reading

Dr Clark Rushing, Assistant Professor, Wildland Resources, USU S.J. & Jessie E. Quinney College of Natural Resources, http://qcnr.usu.edu/directory/rushing_clark

Red-Breasted Nuthatch, Utah Birds, http://www.utahbirds.org/birdsofutah/ProfilesL-R/RedBreastedNuthatch.htm

Black-capped Chickadee, Utah Birds, http://www.utahbirds.org/birdsofutah/Profiles/BlackCapChickadee.htm

Dark-Eyed Junco, Utah Birds, http://www.utahbirds.org/birdsofutah/ProfilesD-K/DarkEyedJunco.htm

eBird, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, https://ebird.org/home

Project Feederwatch, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, https://feederwatch.org/

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/

Hellstern, Ron, Bird Feeding in Winter, Wild About Utah, Nov 26, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/bird-feeding-in-winter/

Hellstern, Ron, Project Feederwatch, Wild About Utah, Feb 26, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/project-feederwatch/

Hellstern, Ron, Winter Bird Feeding, Wild About Utah, Dec 4, 2017, https://wildaboututah.org/winter-bird-feeding/

Kervin, Linda, Bird Feeding, Wild About Utah, Nov 25, 2008, https://wildaboututah.org/bird-feeding/

Enjoying Utah’s Backcountry with Snowmobiles

Enjoying Utah’s Backcountry with Snowmobiles: Snowmobiling along a groomed trail Enjoy Wild Utah Courtesy & Copyright Sebastian Voortman, Photographer
Snowmobiling along a groomed trail
Enjoy Wild Utah
Courtesy & Copyright Sebastian Voortman, Photographer

Utah’s deep snow and hundreds of miles of publicly accessible groomed trails make snowmobiling an ideal way for individuals and families to experience the state’s backcountry.  

Cal Taylor, president of Utah Snowmobile Association says, “My family loves snow.  We make sure everyone has warm clothes,” then we head up the mountain to isolate ourselves from the hectic world.

For those who want to try snowmobiling, it’s easy to rent all the gear and equipment and receive the necessary safety training.

The hard part is choosing which trail to explore.

There are nine trail complexes in the state which stretch from Fish Lake in Central Utah, to Logan Canyon in the northern tip of the state.  These complexes consist of extensive trail systems.  Each trail provides a unique backcountry experience.

Enjoying Utah’s Backcountry with Snowmobiles: Snowmobiling along a groomed trail Enjoy Wild Utah Courtesy & Copyright Sebastian Voortman, Photographer
Snowmobiling along a groomed trail
Enjoy Wild Utah
Courtesy & Copyright Sebastian Voortman, Photographer

The trails are on public lands and are free and accessible to anyone who wishes to explore them.   

The northern most complex stretches from Ogden to Bear Lake and includes the Hardware Ranch, Monte Cristo and Bear Lake trails.  These systems consist of more than 180 miles of well-groomed trails that wind through the Wasatch-Cache National Forest. 

The Hardware Ranch trailhead is located close to the Ranch which is the winter range for hundreds of elk.   The Hardware Ranch provides sleigh rides to anyone who would like a close up look at the elk.

Further up the mountain, snowmobilers may find forest grouse who make their winter homes in and around the high mountain aspens.  It is not uncommon for sledders to be startled by grouse flying out of its hiding spots.

Coyotes are also a familiar sight.  Taylor said, “I have seen a coyote playing in the distance. They’ll run across the snow and dive in.”

Along the Mirror Lake Highway trail, part of Complex 3, mountain goats can be seen balancing on the snow covered cliffs of Bald Mountain.  Watching their agility as they move along the high ridges is an incredible site.

In central Utah the Fish Lake trail reaches and elevation of 11.500 feet, with a breathtaking panoramic view.   Some sledders bring their fishing poles so they can stop and enjoy ice fishing on the naturally formed Fish Lake, which is only accessible by snowmobile in the winter.

Maps for all nine trail complexes can be found via links on the Utah Snowmobile Association’s website.   If you enter the complex name in Google you’ll find even more helpful details.

Utah Division of State Parks grooms each trail every few days.  Due to a well-targeted gas tax, those who use the trails, fund the trails. 

Enjoying Utah’s Backcountry with Snowmobiles: Enjoy Viewing Wildlife via Snowmobile Courtesy & Copyright Sebastian Voortman, Photographer
Enjoy Viewing Wildlife via Snowmobile
Courtesy & Copyright Sebastian Voortman, Photographer

Jordan Smith, the director of the Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism in the Quinney College of Natural Resources completed a research project about the economic impact of snowmobiling in Utah.  The study found snowmobiling accounts for 1,378 Utah jobs and $59.9 million in labor income.  In 2016 alone, over $13 million in state and local tax revenues were generated by snowmobiling activity.

Additionally, Smith discovered there is still plenty of room for more residents to enjoy the snowy trails.  He explains, “There are relatively few heavily visited snowmobile destinations throughout the state.”  When you see all the trailers in a snowmobile parking lots you may assume the trails are crowded, but once they disperse the snowmobilers rarely see each other.

Families and individuals interested in trying snowmobiling to explore the trail complexes, may begin by checking out the Utah Snowmobile Association’s website whose mission is to “Educat[e] Utah’s Snowmobile Families”.   People can go there to find the do’s and don’ts, what to take, how to dress, and where to ride.”

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

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

Sources & Additional Reading


Utah Snowmobile Association, http://www.snowut.com/