Colorado Plateau

Colorado Plateau Courtesy and Copyright Jack Greene, Photographer
Colorado Plateau
Courtesy and Copyright Jack Greene, Photographer
Rivers and sandstone pretty much define the Colorado Plateau- perhaps my favorite landscape on our lovely planet. These past few weeks I’ve experienced some of its best in Dinosaur NM and Canyonlands NP with friends and students.

Those magnificent rivers- Green, Yampa, Colorado, San Juan- have worked their marvels slicing through thousands of feet of sandstone mixed with a bit of limestone and shale. To stand on a rim and look over a hundred miles of convoluted, tortured land form feasts the convolutions of one’s brain. And the contorted, gnarly juniper trees that adorn the rock seem to reflect those lands that nourish them, some nearing a thousand years of fire and storm.

“The landscape everywhere, away from the river, is of rock – cliffs of rock; plateaus of rock; terraces of rock; crags of rock – ten thousand strangely carved forms.” John Wesley Powell, July, 1869 on his first river trip through our Canyonlands.

I love the names assigned to the rock formations- Weber, Morgan, Cedar Mesa, Carmel, Navajo, Entrada, Kayenta, and so on, each associated with particular strange formations- arches, bridges, towers, turrets, endless. And the improbable snow covered peaks adding welcome contrast from the sun baked sandstone- Lasalles, Abajos, Henry’s- laccolithic bumps in the earth’s crust whose overburden of rock and soil stripped away by millions of years of storm and gravity.

Common Raven (Corvus corax)
Bryce Canyon National Park
Courtesy US National Park Service
And found on Wikipedia

Even more improbable are the myriad life forms that adorn these “waste” lands. Well over a thousand plant and insect species, hundreds of varied birds, mammal and reptiles. One bird in particular is a symbol of this wild, splendid country- they call it raven. Their intelligence and mischievousness are legendary. Last week I was the victim. I left a stack of Canyonlands books setting on a table. After an all day, epic hike I returned to a tattered book missing a few pages, and another small paperback gone. Can these enigmatic rascals read?

Another part of this magical country are the cultural leavings of the ancestral Pueblo and Fremont people. I always take pause when their startling presence appears. How could anyone survive, even a few weeks, let alone a few thousand years in this harsh, unforgiving environment? Only through an intimate relationship with their natural surroundings, especially plants. Who could grow a garden on poor sandstone generated soils with little rain and extreme temperatures? But they did. A wonderfully written book “Wild Plants and Native Peoples of the Four Corners” is a must read. It’s done with cultural sensitivity along with excellent details on preparing them for use- food, fiber, medicine and décor.

And finally, Ed Abbey and Terry Tempest Williams captured the spirit of these great lands in verse- “Desert Solitaire” and “Red, Passion and Patience in the Desert”, must reads.

Jack Greene, Getting wilder about Utah by the minute!

Credits:

Images: Courtesy Jack Greene
Audio: Contains Audio Courtesy and Copyright Friend Weller
Text:     Jack Greene

Sources & Additional Reading:

Abbey, Edward, Desert Solitaire, Touchstone (January 15, 1990), https://www.amazon.com/Desert-Solitaire-Edward-Abbey/dp/0671695886/

Williams, Terry Tempest, Red, Passion and Patience in the Desert, Vintage (October 8, 2002), https://www.amazon.com/Red-Patience-Terry-Tempest-Williams/dp/0375725180/

Stegner, Wallace, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West, Penguin Books; Reprint edition (March 1, 1992), https://www.amazon.com/Beyond-Hundredth-Meridian-Wesley-Opening/dp/0140159940/

Filmore, Robert, Geological Evolution of the Colorado Plateau of Eastern Utah and Western Colorado, University of Utah Press; 1st edition (March 15, 2011), https://www.amazon.com/Geological-Evolution-Colorado-Plateau-Eastern/dp/1607810042/

Dinosaur National Monument, National Park Service, US Department of the Interior,
https://www.nps.gov/dino/index.htm

Canyonlands National Park, National Park Service, US Department of the Interior,
https://www.nps.gov/cany/index.htm

Greater Sage-Grouse in Utah

Female Sage-Grouse Flying in Winter, Courtesy & Copyright Todd Black, Photographer
Female Sage-Grouse Flying in Winter, Courtesy & Copyright Todd Black, Photographer
Utah’s dry, sagebrush covered landscapes are home to one of North American’s largest grouse species, commonly known as the greater sage-grouse.

The females are attractive chicken-size birds with gently curved bodies. Their feathers show streaks of black, brown and gray. This pattern acts as a natural camouflage in their sagebrush habitat to help protect them from predators.

Male Sage-Grouse on Lek, Courtesy & Copyright Todd Black, Photographer
Male Sage-Grouse on Lek, Courtesy & Copyright Todd Black, Photographer
Males are distinguished from females by their majestic form and decorative feather patterns. They are often twice the size of females and can weigh over seven pounds. A thick layer of white plumage covers the males’ breast and wraps up around both sides of their thick necks. Their tails are a long spray of pointy feathers, which rise into a beautiful fan during courting season and provide the basis for their scientific name Centrocercus urophasianus derived from the Greek word “kentron” meaning spiny, “kerkos” meaning tail, and urophasianus meaning tail of a pheasant.

To help protect against predators their wing and back feathers have streaks of black, grey, and brown – similar to the females.

Buried under the male’s white breast feathers are two air sacs that remain concealed until mating season begins.
The greater sage-grouse are probably best known, by most, for their extravagant courtship rituals.

Around the beginning of March, the male grouse return to their communal mating grounds called a lek where they compete with other males to attract and breed with the females. The ritual is called lekking. The lek is in an open area where visibility is good – such as a dry lakebed.

Dominate Male Sage-Grouse with Females, Courtesy & Copyright Todd Black, Photographer
Dominate Male Sage-Grouse with Females, Courtesy & Copyright Todd Black, Photographer
To show their dominance, the males raise their tail feathers in a magnificent fan, fill their breast sacs with air then thrust the air out of the sacs making a popping/bubbling sound as they strut around the lek in a regal fashion.

The females are attracted to the leks by the calls of the males, which can carry for over 1.5 miles. When they arrive, they roost among the males to watch their strutting performances. The hens may visit the lek several times during the breeding season before nesting.

During the courtship rituals, the females will begin searching for a nesting site. Most will choose to build their nests under the protective cover of a sagebrush bush. The female lines the bowl-shaped nest with dead grass and a few feathers. When she sits on her nest of 6-8 eggs, her camouflage colors go to work and make her nearly invisible from her surroundings. A potential predator may often pass by her as she sits motionless and in silence on her nest for a 30-day incubation period.

Week-old Sage-Grouse Chick with Transmitter, Courtesy & Copyright Todd Black, Photographer
Week-old Sage-Grouse Chick with Transmitter, Courtesy & Copyright Todd Black, Photographer
Dr. Terry Messmer, Utah State University Extension wildlife specialist and director of the Berryman Institute explains, “Greater sage-grouse do not have a muscular crop and are not able to digest hard seeds like other upland game species such as the ring-necked pheasant… they depend on sagebrush for their survival. In fact, during the winter sage-grouse survive by only eating sagebrush. They are the only species that can gain weight during the winter by [consuming] sagebrush.”

Biologists estimate that since the European settlement of North America there has been a 50% decline of the sage-grouse sagebrush habitat and population.

In the late 1990’s, in an effort to reverse this trend, Messmer through Utah State University entered into a collaboration with the State of Utah and numerous other stakeholders to develop a community-based conservation plan. Its purpose was to bring local communities, agencies, and researchers together to determine the best methods to preserve sage-grouse, their sagebrush habitats, and benefit the local community – without having to list it for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.

After two decades of hard work, the partners have witnessed a resurgence of the greater sage-grouse as their habitats have been protected, enhanced and expanded.

If you’d like to see greater sage-grouse, the largest populations are found in western Box Elder County, on Blue and Diamond Mountains in Uintah County in northeastern Utah, in Rich County, and on Parker Mountain in south central Utah. Just remember to bring your binoculars.

This is Shauna Leavitt for Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: All photos courtesy of and used with permission of Todd A. Black.
Text: Shauna Leavitt, USGS Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University

Additional Reading

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

Pioneer Day Edible Native Plants 2016

Mountain big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata subsp. Vaseyana) in flower - Photo Courtesy and Copyright Dr. Leila Shultz
Mountain big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata subsp. Vaseyana) in flower – Photo Courtesy and Copyright Dr. Leila Shultz
 
 
 
 
With Pioneer Days looming, let’s explore a bit of our local heritage.

Following several days of cold and snowy weather in early May, my friend and USU graduate student Ian Keller and I approached the Mormon Handcart outpost near Evanston Wyoming on Deseret Land & Livestock Company land. We braved the elements to deliver a seminar to 8 missionary couples on Mormon pioneer use of wild plants as they struggled toward the Promised Land of Salt Lake Valley.

Ian’s graduate work encompasses this topic. Some of what follows is from his good work combined with others later mentioned. And we must not overlook the origins of this knowledge which came from the native peoples, acquired through thousands of years of trial and error.

(I must add that following our seminar we feasted on a variety of sumptuous foods the missionaries had prepared from pioneer recipes!)

I’ll begin with a remarkable plant big sage brush or Artemisia tridentate, which was their constant companion for much of the journey.

Medicinal uses included treatment for headache, diarrhea, sore throat, vomiting and even bullet wounds. Tea made from leaves was used for hair tonic and a poultice for bee stings.

“Brighan Young advised gathering and drying it for winter medicinal purposes. From a pioneer journal- “We washed our hair in sage tea, sage tea is good to cure night sweats”. And from Phil Robinson, 1883- “Someday perhaps a fortune will be made of it, but at present its chief value seems to be as a moral discipline to the settler and as cover for the sage hen.”

Dandelions, Photo Copyright 2002 Roger Banner, Intermountain Herbarium, USU
Dandelions
Copyright © 2002 Roger Banner, Intermountain Herbarium, USU
 
 
 
 
Another plant that rarely gets its due, the common dandelion.
For Dandelion Salad- “Gather the tender young plants of the dandelion. Wash and cut up into a salad. Serve with dressing oil, or just with salt and pepper.”— Ilene Kingsbury.

And from Larry A. Sagers, USU Extension Horticulture Specialist in the Thanksgiving Point Office-
Thistles that we now curse were once highly prized by the pioneers. One early pioneer wrote, “I used to eat thistle stalks until my stomach would be as full as a cow’s.”
The young leaves of stinging nettles were also used as greens. The cooking destroyed the irritating parts that affect the skin.
Camas bulbs for which Kamas, Utah, was named, were also used for food. The bulbs were eaten or a crude molasses was made from boiling the bulbs. Unfortunately, if too many of the bulbs were consumed they could cause severe illness. The bulbs also grow in proximity with death camas, so this particular plant involves certain risks to the user.

Tall Thistle (Cirsium altissimum), Photo Courtesy NPS, Kelly Manktelow, Photographer
Tall Thistle
(Cirsium altissimum)
Aster family (Asteraceae) in flower
Photo Courtesy NPS,
Kelly Manktelow, Photographer
The pioneers also used grease wood sprouts and other plants to supplement their meager diet.
Gooseberries, strawberries, raspberries and currants grew in the mountains and were highly prized. Chokecherries were a favorite for preserves and jellies.
A recent book by Brock Cheney “Plain but Wholesome: Foodways of the Mormon Pioneers.” is a delightful book with many pioneer plant stories and recipes, as is Dr. Wesley P. Larsen’s “Field Folio of Indian and Pioneer Medicinal Plants”.

Perhaps your Pioneer Day’s activities will include preparing a recipe from one of these sources to garnish your picnic! And let us include the plants which garnished our pioneers with flavor if not survival during their epic trek!

Jack Greene, Smithfield Utah

Credits:

Pictures: Courtesy and Copyright Dr. Leila Shultz
Copyright © 2002 Roger Banner, Intermountain Herbarium, USU
Courtesy NPS,
Kelly Manktelow, Photographer
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Brock Cheney, Plain but Wholesome: Foodways of the Mormon Pioneers, http://www.amazon.com/Plain-but-Wholesome-Foodways-Pioneers/dp/1607812088

Wesley P. Larsen, Field Folio of Indian and Pioneer Medicinal Plants,
http://www.amazon.com/Field-Indian-Pioneer-Medicinal-Plants/dp/B007HFR7A2

Kit Foxes: Sentinels of Utah’s Desert Nights

Kit Fox, click to view larger image, Photo Courtesy and Copyright © 2009 Bryan Kluever
Adult Kit Fox
captured with a box trap.
Kit foxes are weighed,
fitted with a radio collar,
and then released
Courtesy & Copyright © 2010
Bryan Kluever
Graduate Research Assistant
Utah State University
Dept of Wildland Resources
One of the first things observers notice about the kit fox is its tiny size. Weighing in at a mere four pounds or so, Vulpes macrotis is among the smallest canids on the planet.

Often mistaken for swift foxes, kit foxes are a distinct species that sport larger ears and a leaner, more angular appearance. The small mammal has a long, black-tipped bushy tail and a yellowish-gray coat tinged with rusty orange.

Listed as a sensitive species in Utah, the carnivores live primarily in the state’s arid, western regions, where they reside in family dens and hunt for smaller mammals such as field mice and jackrabbits, as well as insects, birds, amphibians and fish.

But the diminutive hunter is susceptible to predation by a host of larger beasts, including coyotes, bobcats and golden eagles, says USU alum and wildlife biologist Bryan Kluever.

“With small size comes disadvantages; however, the advantage is increased agility and mobility,” he says.

Kit foxes have little difficulty leaping over sagebrush and rabbitbrush that towers over them and provides a welcome refuge from hungry predators. Given a choice, the foxes prefer to stay in open areas, where they can put their sense of sight to full use. Their vulnerability to larger members of the food chain partially explains the animal’s nocturnal habits.

Kit Fox, click to view larger image, Photo Courtesy and Copyright © 2009 Bryan Kluever
Adult kit fox prior to being
released. Note the black
collar antenna on the right
side of the fox.
Courtesy & Copyright © 2010
Bryan Kluever

“The life of a kit fox is ruled by the night,” Kluever says. “They are rarely active during the day and, when they are, this activity is limited to near dawn and dusk. This behavior is likely a function of eluding their enemies and avoiding harsh desert temperatures, especially in summer.”

One of the kit foxes’ most distinctive traits is its insatiable curiosity.

“If one word had to be used to describe the kit fox, it would be inquisitive,” says Kluever, who extensively studied the creatures at the Army’s Dugway Proving Ground. “Most canids cannot be captured with cage traps but kit foxes are one of the exceptions. When we released them after capture, they often began to walk toward us, rather than running away.”

Thanks to USU’s Quinney College of Natural Resources for supporting research and development of this Wild About Utah topic.

Credits:
Images: Courtesy & Copyright Bryan Kluever
Text:     Mary-Ann Muffoletto, Utah State University College of Natural Resources
Credits:
Bryan Kluever, wildlife biologist, Fort Carson Military Installation, Colorado.

Additional Reading:

Utah’s Desert Fox, Mary-Ann Muffoletto, Wild About Utah, May 27, 2010, https://wildaboututah.org/utahs-desert-fox/

White, P. J. and K. Ralls. 1993. Reproduction and spacing patterns of kit foxes relative to changing prey availability. Journal of Wildlife Management 57:861–867 The Wildlife Society, http://si-pddr.si.edu/dspace/bitstream/10088/510/1/White1993.pdf

Kit Fox (Vulpes macrotis), Wildlife Notebook Series No. 9, Utah Division of Wildlife Resourceswildlife.utah.gov/publications/pdf/2010_kit_fox.pdf

Kit Fox (Vulpes macrotis), Species Fact Sheets, Utah Conservation Data Center, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, http://dwrcdc.nr.utah.gov/rsgis2/Search/Display.asp?FlNm=vulpvelo