Tales of the Packrat The Legacy of Early Grazing on Utah’s Rangelands

Tales of the Packrat: Pack Rat Midden,  Photo Courtesy and Copyright 2009 Ken Cole - All Rights Reserved
Pack Rat Midden
Copyright © 2009 Ken Cole

One of the best storytellers in Utah’s national parks is not a ranger, but the lowly packrat. Their stories of past plant communities are written in their middens. The midden is a heap of leaves, twigs, seeds and fruits the packrat discards outside its nest. Protected in a desert cave or rock crevice and preserved by a rat’s own urine, this heap is a detailed and accurate time capsule of the past local flora.

Ken Cole with the US Geological Survey is a fluent translator of the packrat’s stories. Ken and colleagues sampled old packrat nests around Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Capitol Reef National Park. By carbon-14 dating, the nest ages are known to span the last 10,000 years. As controls, they also collected nests from mesa tops inaccessible to livestock. Ken and colleagues then carefully translated these packrats’ stories by identifying and counting the plant fragments in these fossil nests.

Reaching for a Pack Rat Midden
Copyright © 2009 Ken Cole

At both Capitol Reef and Glen Canyon, old packrat nests revealed pre-settlement plant communities that were rich in diverse grasses, wildflowers and shrubs. Then these floras changed. Beginning 150 years ago, vast herds of sheep and cattle tromped and chewed their way across the unfenced rangelands of Utah in numbers unimaginable today. We know that palatable plant species and those susceptible to trampling suffered declines, because they are absent from middens from that time period. Unpalatable shrubs multiplied. Despite curtailed grazing in subsequent decades at Capitol Reef and Glen Canyon, packrats show us that the flora still has not recovered. Like Aesop’s fables, this cautionary lesson of the packrat’s ecological tale remains clear and relevant today. We should all listen.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

Credits:

Photos: Courtesy and Copyright Ken Cole

Text: Jim Cane, Bridgerland Audubon

Additional Reading:

Betancourt, Julio L., Thomas R. Van Devender, and Paul S. Martin, eds. Packrat Middens: The Last 40,000 Years of Biotic Change, University of Arizona Press, 1990 http://www.uapress.arizona.edu/books/BID40.htm

Pack Rat Middens, Colorado Plateau in Land Use History of North America, Ken Cole, USGS/Northern Arizona University, http://cpluhna.nau.edu/Tools/packrat_middens.htm

Introduction [to Carbon 14 Dating], Tom Higham, Radiocarbon Laboratory, University of Waikato, New Zealand http://www.c14dating.com/int.html

Aflame with Color

Canyon or Big-Toothed Maple
In a natural landscape
Acer grandidentatum
Courtesy Michael Kuhns
Extension.usu.edu

Holly: Hi, I’m Holly Strand from Stokes Nature Center in beautiful Logan Canyon.

The canyons and valleys of Utah will soon be awash with brilliant fall hues. Cascades of red, orange and gold will blanket the hillsides as the weather turns cooler and morning frost dusts the mountain ridges.

The Canyon Maple is one of Utah’s main sources of autumn color. Like most maple species, its leaves are carved into deep lobes. The leaves are medium-to-bright green now, but soon the entire tree will glow with spectacular color.
Canyon maple is found throughout Utah at medium elevations between 4,500 to 7,500 feet. It tends to grow on lower slopes and canyon bottoms in the mountains in association with Douglas-fir and junipers.

Its scientific name, Acer grandidentatum [AY-ser gran-dih-den-TAY-tum], means “Big Tooth”, referring to the tree’s distinctive lobed leaves with large, toothed margins. In fact, bigtooth maple is another common name for this species.

Canyon or Big-Toothed Maple
In a natural landscape
Acer grandidentatum
Courtesy Michael Kuhns
Extension.usu.edu

Some think that he canyon maple is related to the sugar maple of the northeastern and midwestern United States,” says forestry professor Mike Kuhns of Utah State University’s Department of Wildland Resources. It’s possible that long ago, the Rocky Mountains rose up and isolated a sugar maple population that eventually evolved into a unique species.

The canyon maple rivals its eastern relatives in fall color but does it produce sap suitable for tasty, syrup-covered waffles and pancakes? Back in 1970s, a group of scientists set out to determine just that. The trees were tapped and yielded plenty of sticky liquid. The color was very light, resembling light honey and the flavor was delicate and fruity, almost like pineapple. However, it was notably less sweet than the northeastern sugar maple. Of 30 panelists from Utah who participated in a taste test, 57 percent preferred eastern sugar maple syrup but the remaining 43 percent preferred canyon maple syrup.

Canyon or Big-Toothed Maple
leaves in late summer
Acer grandidentatum
Courtesy Michael Kuhns

The researchers concluded that while canyon maple sap was not practical for large-scale syrup production it might be enjoyable for individuals to try on a small scale on private land within its habitat range.

Syrup aside, the medium-sized tree thrives in Utah’s residential landscapes, parks and urban areas, as well as in the wild. Its year-round beauty, hardiness and manageable size make it a perennial favorite in the Beehive State.

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

For Wild About Utah and Stokes Nature Center, I’m Holly Strand.
Credits:

Canyon or Big-Toothed Maple
leaves in late summer & fall
Acer grandidentatum
Courtesy Michael Kuhns
Extension.usu.edu

Image: Courtesy and Copyright 2003 Michael Kuhns, Extension.usu.edu

Text: Holly Strand & Mary-Ann Muffoletto, Stokes Nature Center
Sources & Additional Reading

 

Barker, Phillip A.; Salunkhe, D. K. 1974. Maple syrup from bigtooth maple. Journal of Forestry. 72(8): 491-492. [9065] http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/saf/jof/1974/00000072/00000008/art00016

Kuhns, Michael. 2003. Canyon Maple: A Tree For the Interior West,” USU Forestry Extension, http://extension.usu.edu/forestry/HomeTown/Select_CanyonMaple.htm [2009, September 16].

Tollefson, Jennifer E. 2006. Acer grandidentatum. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/ [2009, September 16]

Acer grandidentatum – Bigtooth Maple, Water-wise Plants for Utah Landscapes, http://www.waterwiseplants.utah.gov/default.asp?p=PlantInfo&Plant=17

Utah’s Recent Pinyon Migrations and the Prospects for Climate Change

Packrat Fossil Midden City of RocksCourtesy and Copyright 2009 Julio Betancourt - All Rights Reserved
Packrat Fossil Midden
City of Rocks
Copyright © 2009 Julio Betancourt

In the late 1970’s, springtime in the American West warmed abruptly by 2 degrees Fahrenheit in the valleys, double that higher up. Our average onset of Spring now comes a week earlier across the West. If these are the first signs of climate change, even longer growing seasons will trigger not just earlier blooms but also northward plant migrations.

The past provides us with lessons about plant migrations. A thousand years ago, one-needle pinyon hopped from the Raft River Mountains in Utah to City of Rocks, Idaho. Across Utah, two-needle pinyon leaped over the Uintas to Flaming Gorge. We know this from radiocarbon dates on pinyon pine needles taken from ancient nest heaps of packrats preserved in caves. According to Dr. Julio Betancourt of the U.S. Geological Survey, who uses these packrat middens and tree rings to reveal past plant migrations, these recent advances by Utah’s two pinyon pines followed the Medieval Climate Anomaly, a period from 900 to 1300 AD marked by warming in Europe and severe drought in Utah.

Packrat 7000 year old Midden Joshua Tree Natl Park, Courtesy and Copyright © 2009 Julio Betancourt - All Rights Reserved
Packrat 7000 year old Midden
Joshua Tree Natl Park
Copyright © 2009 Julio Betancourt

Droughts figure prominently in Dr. Betancourt’s view of tree migrations. Droughts trigger bark beetle infestations, wildfires, and tree dieoffs, opening up niches for regeneration. When the drought abates, the resident tree species typically return. With long-term warming, however, other species can move in from lower elevations or further south. Dead trees now abound on Utah’s landscape, and Dr. Betancourt thinks that we are on the verge of a new spate of tree migrations.

This go around, which species retreat or advance will depend on new factors, including human fragmentation of the landscape and accelerated dispersal of native and non-native species that hitch rides with us. To conserve ecological goods and services associated with some species, Dr. Betancourt argues, we will have to manage for these plant migrations.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

Credits:

Photo: Courtesy and © Copyright 2009 Julio Betancourt

Text: Julio Betancourt USGS NRP Tucson: Biotic Response to Climate Variability

Faculty and Staff > Julio Betancourt

Additional Reading:

USGS National Research Program: Tucson AZ
http://wwwpaztcn.wr.usgs.gov/home.html

Climate Change and the Great Basin, Jeanne C. Chambers, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Reno, NV, 2008,

A Database of Paleoecological Records from Neotoma Middens in Western North America, USGS/NOAA North American Packrat Midden Database, http://esp.cr.usgs.gov/data/midden/ (Accessed 27 August 2009)

USA National Phenology Network

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Courtesy USA National Phenology Network

The study of recurring plant and animal life cycle events is phenology. It is the calendar of nature. This includes when plants flower, when birds migrate and when crops mature. Phenology is relevant to interactions between organisms, seasonal timing and large-scale cycles of water and carbon. Phenology is important to us for many reasons. Farmers need to know when to plant and harvest crops and when to expect pests to emerge. Resource managers use it to monitor and predict drought and assess fire risk. Vacationers want to know when the best fall colors will be or when the wildflower blooms will peak. Timing varies but we can discern patterns.

The USA National Phenology Network monitors the influence of climate on the phenology of plants, animals and landscapes. They encourage people to observe phenological events such as flowering, migrations and egg laying. The Phenology Network provides a place to enter, store and share these observations, which are then compiled and analyzed nationwide. Participants range from individual observers in their own backyards to professional scientists monitoring long-term plots. My husband and I monitor leafing and flowering of lilacs, a key species in the program.

These observations support a wide range of decisions made routinely by citizens, managers, scientists and others. This includes decisions related to allergies, wildfires, pest control, and water management.

I urge you to participate. The National Phenology Network has many public, private and citizen partners. It is a great way to become involved in a nation-wide effort to better understand our environment. All this information and much more is available at the National Phenology website, to which there is a link from our Wild About Utah website.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

Credits:

Text: Linda Kervin, Bridgerland Audubon Society
Additional Reading:

USA National Phenology Network, http://www.usanpn.org/

North American Bird Phenology Program, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, https://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/bpp/BecomeAParticipant.cfm