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

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

Xeric Gardening with Native Plants

Fire Chalice or Zauschneria latifolia
Courtesy: Intermountain Native Plant
Growers Association, www.INPGA.org

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

As the days lengthen and gardeners dream of the planting season to come, I urge you to consider plants adapted to our desert climate. Perhaps there are dry corners where your irrigation does not reach. Or you tire of watching the rivulets of water that run down the gutter from trying to grow grass in the strip between sidewalk and road. These are ideal areas to experiment with drought tolerant plants.

As more of us have become aware of the need to conserve water, the availability of gardening resources has increased. Many local and mail order nurseries now have a good selection of drought tolerant or xeriscape plants.

Maple Mallow, Illiamna_rivularis
Copyright 2008 Jim Cane

The Intermountain Plant Growers Association labels nursery plants with a special tag as Utah’s Choice. Utah’s Choice plants are well adapted to the climate of the intermountain west and are a good starting point for choosing plants.

One of my favorite Utah’s Choice plants is Fire Chalice or Zauschneria latifolia. It is a spreading perennial plant that is covered in fiery red tubular flowers from midsummer til frost. Hummingbirds avidly visit this carefree, drought-tolerant plant.

Globe Mallow Flower
Sphaeralcea ambigua
Copyright 2006-2008 Jim Cane

Maple Mallow or Illiamna rivularis is another favorite perennial. This bushy, waist-high resident of the higher mountains does well in my garden here in Logan. It is in partial sun and gets weekly watering. It is covered in large, pale pink flowers through much of the summer.

Globe mallows, genus Sphaeralcea, are another useful xeric perennial. They require bright sunshine and tolerate heavy soils. Among our natives, they are unusual for their profusion of orange-colored flowers.

These are just a few examples of the wealth of possibilities. By choosing plants adapted to your environment, you take the garden path of less resistance. When you consider the rainfall, soil and sun exposure of your yard and choose plants adapted for those conditions, you struggle less and enjoy your garden more.

Globe Mallow Plant
Sphaeralcea ambigua
Copyright 2006-2008 Jim Cane

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

Credits:

Photos: Courtesy & Copyright © 2008 Intermountain Native Plant Growers Association, www.INPGA.org

Also Courtesy & Copyright © 2008 Jim Cane

Text: Linda Kervin & Jim Cane

Additional Reading:

Xeriscape Bloom
Copyright 2008 Jim Cane

INPGA: Intermountain Native Plant Growers Association, http://www.utahschoice.org/welcome

Wildland Nursery, Joseph, UT, http://www.wildlandnursery.com/

Sagebrush

Sagebrush near Raft River, UT
Sagebrush near Raft River, UT – Photo Courtesy and Copyright 2007 Dr. Leila Shultz

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

I was always prone to homesickness when I spent long periods in the Eastern US and abroad. Returning to Colorado for visits, I would break off a small branch of sagebrush to pack in my suitcase. That way I could always take some essence of home along with me. Now I don’t need to do that. The desert air and cold winters here in Utah make it a sagebrush heaven.

The scent that has become so dear to me comes from the volatile oils of the sagebrush plant. Ironically, the smell that appeals so much to me repels most animals. The aromatic properties of the sagebrush are a by-product of chemicals that evolved as a pest deterrent and as anti-freeze. Sagebrush oils have a very bitter taste. Browsers, such as deer and elk avoid the plants, nibbling on sagebrush only in winter months when the concentration of oils has decreased. And even then, only as a last resort. The pronghorn– a North American native that co-evolved with sagebrush–can tolerate it better than other herbivores.

Within the sunflower family, sagebrush belongs to the genus Artemisia – a group of wind-pollinated plants spread mostly across the northern hemisphere. The 400 or so species in this genus include a variety of sagebrushes, sageworts, and wormwoods.

The Atlas of Vascular Plants of Utah lists 19 different species in the Artemisia genus. Among the most common, you’ll find sand sagebrush in the dunes and deep sand regions in southern Utah. Black sagebrush is found on gentle, rocky slopes and windswept ridges in dry, shallow soils, in the foothills and desert mountain ranges. Bud sagebrush is common in salt-desert shrub communities from 4-6000 ft. Almost everywhere, however, big sagebrush dominates. It occurs in valleys, basins, and mountain slopes, at elevations between 2,500 and 10,000 feet. In Utah, you’ll also hear big sagebrush called Great Basin, Wyoming or mountain sagebrush.

Humans have put the unique qualities of sagebrush and its relatives to good use. The volatile oils are toxic to many intestinal parasites, therefore early Americans used it to rid themselves of worms. Oils have also been used to combat infections and to treat internal wounds. Eurasian wormwood–an introduced plant in Utah–is the defining ingredient, in the liquor absinthe, and is used for flavoring in other spirits and wines, including bitters and vermouth. The spice tarragon comes from dragonswort, an Artemisa species found in both Eurasia and N. America.

Ecologists used to think that the presence of sagebrush discourages or suppresses other forms of life. Certainly, sagebrush desert steppes are generally poor in species. The truth is that few species can tolerate the temperature extremes, soil conditions and lack of water the way that sagebrush can. So the next time you see some, pick a leaf, crush it, smell it, and admire this tough but well-adapted Utah native.

Dr. Leila Shultz, a Utah State University expert on sagebrush provided the science information for this piece.

Thanks to the Rocky Mountain Power Foundation for supporting research and development of Wild About Utah topics.
For Wild About Utah and Stokes Nature Center I’m Holly Strand.

 

Credits:

Photo Courtesy & Copyright 2007 Dr. Leila Shultz

Text: Stokes Nature Center: Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading:

Digital Atlas of the Vascular Plants of Utah, http://earth.gis.usu.edu/plants/index.html