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/

Western Forest Grouse

Western Forest Grouse: A dusky grouse chick, several weeks old. Captured up Logan Canyon. The chick was marked with an aluminum leg band with cotton glued to the inside of the band so the leg could grow into the adult-sized band. Photo Credit: Skyler Farnsworth
A dusky grouse chick, several weeks old. Captured up Logan Canyon. The chick was marked with an aluminum leg band with cotton glued to the inside of the band so the leg could grow into the adult-sized band.
Photo Credit: Skyler Farnsworth
In the early winter, when most wildlife are migrating down the mountains, dusky grouse are heading up. The grouse rely on the evergreen needles for their sole food source during winter.

The female’s feathers are more camouflaged, while males are a slate grey.

In the Spring, during mating season, male duskies develop bright red air-sacs surrounded by pure white under-feathers on their necks. To attract the females, they make a deep hooting sound with their air sacs. This sound is made at the lowest decibel humans can hear. When close enough, researchers say they often feel the low vibrations of the hooting, before hearing it with their ears.

Although duskies are forest grouse, they are more closely related to prairie grouse than other forest grouse. They often use habitats, such as sagebrush and serviceberry outside of the forest canopy and can move up to 20 miles or more in a given year.

The other forest grouse species found in Utah, the ruffed grouse, prefer staying in a small area about 40 acres their whole life and are small, being slightly larger than a pigeon.

Western Forest Grouse: A dusky grouse female marked with a solar-powered GPS radio using a rump-style attachment. This was a brood hen with several small chicks with her. She was captured in July and released after several minutes of marking and data collection. Photo Credit: David Dahlgren
A dusky grouse female marked with a solar-powered GPS radio using a rump-style attachment. This was a brood hen with several small chicks with her. She was captured in July and released after several minutes of marking and data collection.
Photo Credit: David Dahlgren
They have a sole winter diet of aspen buds; and remain at a lower elevation during the winter. At night they burrow into snow caves to conserve body heat and energy.

The feathers of the ruffed grouse form a black band on their tails and black “ruffs” on their neck. These features are more prominent on males. During the spring breeding season, males produce a loud “drumming” sound with their wings to attract the females. The rhythm begins slowly then quickens to a climax.

Similar to their prairie cousins, forest grouse can be impacted by habitat fragmentation, human development, climate change, and improper grazing and may be a key species for these areas.

Due to the lack of scientific data, managers do not know the full impact these risks have on the forest grouse.

Western Forest Grouse: Researcher, Dr. Dwayne Elmore from Oklahoma State University, holding a male ruffed grouse after capture. The bag is used to contain the grouse while getting a weight. Photo Credit: David Dahlgren
Researcher, Dr. Dwayne Elmore from Oklahoma State University, holding a male ruffed grouse after capture. The bag is used to contain the grouse while getting a weight.
Photo Credit: David Dahlgren
David Dahlgren, assistant professor in the Quinney College of Natural Resources was discussing this deficit with Jason Robinson, upland game coordinator, for Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. Both recognized the potential benefits of using modern research techniques with forest grouse.

Dahlgren explains, “We wanted to get ahead of the ball.” If forest grouse, particularly duskies, are to be considered key species for our mountain ecosystems, we needed scientific information for management.

Dahlgren began the research with DWR in Fall 2015, in an area where the forest grouse get the highest hunting pressure – the Bear River Range, [in northern Utah, between Cache Valley and Bear Lake].

From 2015 to 2017, 120 grouse were leg banded. This provided data on harvest, habitat use, and survival.

Skyler Farnsworth, the project’s graduate student, discovered pointing dogs would help him find and capture grouse during the research. He started the project dog-less and ended with two bird dogs of his own.

Western Forest Grouse: An adult male dusky grouse in full breeding season display just after a snow in late April. Notice the red air sacs surrounded by white under-feathers, yellow eye combs, and the fanned tail with a grey band. Photo Credit: Skyler Farnsworth.
An adult male dusky grouse in full breeding season display just after a snow in late April. Notice the red air sacs surrounded by white under-feathers, yellow eye combs, and the fanned tail with a grey band.
Photo Credit: Skyler Farnsworth.
Of the 120 bands, only three bands have been returned since 2015 and one of those was found by a hiker after the bird had been caught by a predator.

Dahlgren explains, “With such a small return, the chance of [hunter harvest] impacting the population is very low, which is comforting and provides real data for forest grouse management.”

The research on the forest grouse is expanding. Dahlgren explains, “we recently started a similar project focused on dusky grouse in Nevada, working with the Nevada Department of Wildlife.”

Many partners have supported these forest grouse research projects including, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Nevada Department of Wildlife, Sportsman organizations and individuals. USU’s Agricultural Experiment Station provided the bulk of funding support.

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

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy & Copyright © Skyler Farnsworth and David Dahlgren
Text: Shauna Leavitt, USGS Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University

Sources & Additional Reading

Additional Grouse Articles on Wild About Utah:

Leavitt, Shauna, Greater Sage-Grouse in Utah, Wild About Utah, July 2, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/greater-sage-grouse-in-utah/

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

Leavitt, Shauna, Greater Sage Grouse Recovery, Wild About Utah, Sep 25, 2017, https://wildaboututah.org/greater-sage-grouse-recovery/

Leavitt, Shauna, Decreasing the Habitat Risks of Utah’s Southern Sage-Grouse, Wild About Utah, June 12, 2017, https://wildaboututah.org/greater-sage-grouse-in-utah/

Greene, Jack, Sage Steppe, Wild About Utah, Jun 15, 2015, https://wildaboututah.org/sage-steppe/

Liberatore, Andrea, Ruffed Grouse and the Christmas Bird Count, Wild About Utah, Dec 8, 2014, https://wildaboututah.org/ruffed-grouse-christmas-bird-count/

Kervin, Linda, Sage Grouse, Pronghorn Antelope and Fences, Wild About Utah, May 5, 2011, https://wildaboututah.org/sage-grouse-pronghorn-antelope-and-fences/

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 suckers growing between fallen wood from the Brian Head fire Courtesy & Copyright Karen Mock, Photographer
Aspen suckers 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
Audio: Courtesy Western Soundscape Archive, University of Utah, Sound provided by Jeff Rice, 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

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

Maffly, Brian, A year after southern Utah’s Brian Head Fire, the aspens are bouncing back in a surprising way that could strengthen the forest, The Salt Lake Tribune, Oct 22, 2018, https://www.sltrib.com/news/environment/2018/10/22/year-after-southern/

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
Audio: Courtesy Western Soundscape Archive, University of Utah, Sound provided by Jeff Rice, licenesed 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

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/