The Henry Mountains’ Bison Herd

American Bison Courtesy US FWS Ryan Moehring, Photographer
American Bison
Courtesy US FWS
Ryan Moehring, Photographer
The Henry Mountains of southeast Utah are famous for being the last mountain range in the contiguous United States to have been officially mapped. Indeed, before they were mapped, they were often referred to as the “Unknown Mountains.” Another relative unknown detail about this range is that it harbors one of only five genetically pure, free roaming bison herds on North American public lands.

In 1941, a seed herd of 18 American Plains Bison (B. b. bison) were transplanted from Yellowstone National Park to the arid desert of Utah’s Robbers Roost. A year later, five more bulls were introduced to the herd in hopes of sufficiently diversifying the gene pool and sustaining the herd. The bison must not have found Robbers Roost as appealing as Butch Cassidy had, though, because this new Wild Bunch set out for literal greener pastures that very same year.

The small herd forded the Dirty Devil River and travelled southwest toward the Burr Desert. The herd stopped here for a while, enjoying their newfound buffet atop the Aquarius Plateau. 21 years later, though, in 1963, the still small herd grew tired of the desert and abandoned it altogether for the higher, more verdant snow fed meadows of the nearby Henry Mountains. Here, the herd thrived and quickly swelled in numbers.

Today, the herd’s population is estimated to be between 300 and 400 animals, which ecologists and wildlife biologists regard as the maximum carrying capacity of their Henry Mountain range. The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has responded accordingly. In an effort to perpetuate the health of the herd and their range, the DWR began issuing “Once-in-a-lifetime” permits to hunters hoping to fulfill not only a tag but also a burning sense of adventure. The Henry Mountains, after all, were mapped last for a reason. They remain one of the most rugged and remote places in a state known for its rugged and remote places.

Fittingly, quite unlike their more quintessential Plains Bison brethren, the Henry Mountains bison can be found almost anywhere in the Henrys between the desert lowlands and timberline. Apparently no one has told the herd that Plains Bison don’t typically like high elevations or steep mountain slopes. This unique proclivity of the Henry Mountains herd to cast off behavioral stereotypes works in their favor when hunting season rolls around and they abandon the high, open meadows for steep, wooded canyons and thick groves of aspen and evergreens.

This highly adaptive nature unique to the Henry Mountains herd made it an obvious candidate to serve as a seed population in early 2010 when 39 individuals were transplanted from the Henry Mountains to the Book Cliffs along the Utah-Colorado border. These 39 animals were to serve as a genetic supplement to a relatively new herd first reintroduced to the Book Cliffs by the Ute Indian Tribe in 1986. The now 600-strong Book Cliffs herd is well on its way to reestablishing the American Plains Bison’s historic range in the Book Cliffs.

The story of the Book Cliffs and Henry Mountains Bison give us reason to hope that one day soon, the American Bison might reclaim its territory, a historic range that once ran from Alaska through the Canadian territories and the Great Plains to the Eastern Seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico. And, if so, the role the Henry Mountains herd will play in that expansion may be a significant one.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:

Photos: Courtesy US FWS, Ryan Moehring, Photographer
Audio: Includes audio from
Text: Josh Boling, 2019

Sources & Additional Reading

Utah’s Book Cliffs Herd, Bison Bellows Series, National Park Service, June 30, 2016, https://www.nps.gov/articles/bison-bellows-6-30-16.htm

How scientists brought bison back to Banff, National Public Radio, Feb 28, 2017, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/scientists-brought-bison-back-banff

Buffalo (Bison) on the Henry Mountains, Capitol Reef Country, Wayne County Tourism, https://capitolreef.org/blog/buffalo-bison-on-the-henry-mountains/

Henry Mountains, Utah.com, https://utah.com/henry-mountains

Bison Unit Management Plan, Unit #15 Henry Mountains, Utah Division of Wildlife Management, https://wildlife.utah.gov/hunting/biggame/pdf/bison_15.pdf

Gilman, Don, Rare, genetically-pure bison found in Utah’s Henry Mountains, St George News, Jan 12, 2016, https://www.stgeorgeutah.com/news/archive/2016/01/12/djg-genetically-pure-bison-found-in-utahs-henry-mountains/#.XB7nRs9KjfY

Henry Mountain Outfitters, HuntersTrailhead, http://www.hunterstrailhead.com/index.php?ID=147

Brian, Jayden, Utah Henry Mountain Bison Hunts, Bull Mountain Outfitters, LLC, http://henrymtnbisonhunts.com/

Henry Mountains bison herd, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Mountains_bison_herd

Wild Cats

Bobcat in plants Courtesy US FWS Steve Hillebrand, Photographer
Bobcat in plants
Courtesy US FWS
Steve Hillebrand, Photographer
I remember well my first encounter with a wild cat. I was sitting in a deer stand beneath a cross-country powerline, at the edge of a meadowed thoroughfare the whitetails frequented. Dusk was settling in—nearly time to go—as the trees opposite me began to rustle. With a few minutes of legal light left, I readied my trigger finger; but instead of a deer, a bobcat exited the woods. I was shocked. This—I had not expected. I watched as the cat looked left, then right, then straight at me, making eye contact. There was no reason I should have been noticed. I hadn’t made a sound, hadn’t moved in nearly three hours save the scanning of my eyes and the slight rise and fall of my chest with every breath.
Bobcat Public Domain image courtesy US FWS National Conservation Training Center
Bobcat
Public Domain image courtesy US FWS
National Conservation Training Center
Still, I had been found. The cat ambled slowly but with purpose toward the ladder that connected my seat to the ground, stopping a few meters away. He or she never broke eye contact. Neither did I. I’m not sure why. Instinct, perhaps. I would learn many years later from a man who had stared down a mountain lion from a meter away that you never break eye contact with a big cat in the wild. Never. I have no idea how long we sat there together. Minutes? Seconds? Hours? It was fully dark when the animal turned to leave—so dark I had lost the pattern of its coat in the shadows. I never saw where it went; but I’ve been enamored with wild cats ever since.

Bobcat Courtesy US FWS Gary Kramer, Photographer
Bobcat
Courtesy US FWS
Gary Kramer, Photographer
The landscapes that have shifted and morphed and been politically bordered into what is now the state of Utah has been populated by wild cats since at least 40,000 years ago. During the Pleistocene Epoch’s last ice age, the infamous saber-toothed cat roamed Utah’s glacier-clogged crags. Bones of the saber-toothed species known as Smilodon have been unearthed in Utah, most notably from the Silver Creek site near present-day Park City. Smilodon, with its legendary curved, saber-like canine teeth, was a fearsome hunter of ancient Utah’s mega fauna like the mastodon and wooly mammoth; but when the glaciers receded and the Earth began to melt, the mega fauna couldn’t adapt, so Smilodon had nothing to hunt.

Smilodon gave way through the millennia to the smaller but no less impressive cats that occupy Utah’s crags and hills today—the bobcat, the Canada Lynx, and, of course, the famous mountain lion.

Big cat footprint Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
Big cat footprint Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
It hasn’t been too long since that spring evening in the canyons of southern Utah. We had just rappelled into a small grotto where, at the bottom, there was an ephemeral pool. The sand was already wet with little droplets along the edge, a footprint here and there leading away—the way we would take—down the only path toward home. We chattered more loudly, making ourselves known, as we proceeded. Then we’d grow quiet again, eyes sweeping here and there, secretly hoping we would get a peak of the lion as it sauntered away from us. We never did, but it was there.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:

Photos: Courtesy US FWS
Big cat track photo courtesy and copyright Josh Boling
Audio: Includes audio from North Sounds, Inc.
Text: Josh Boling, 2018

Sources & Additional Reading

Golla, Julie M., “Urban Bobcat (Lynx rufus) Ecology in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas Metroplex” (2017). All Graduate Theses and Dissertations. 6857.
https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/etd/6857

Bauman, Joe, Ice Age in Utah, Deseret News, Dec 3, 1997, https://www.deseretnews.com/article/598582/Ice-age-in-Utah.html

Larese-Casanova, Mark, Mountain Wildlife Field Book, Utah Master Naturalists, https://extension.usu.edu/utahmasternaturalist/files/UMNP_Mountains_Wildlife_Book_booklet.pdf

Fossils on Reclamation Lands Provide a Glimpse Into the Past, https://www.usbr.gov/newsroom/stories/detail.cfm?RecordID=57996

Ice Age Animals of Utah, Utah Geological Services, A division of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, https://geology.utah.gov/popular/general-geology/ice-age/ice-age-animals-of-utah/

Strand, Holly, Mountain Lion, Wild About Utah, Mar 4, 2010https://wildaboututah.org/mountain-lion/

Greene, Jack, My Cougar Encounter, Wild About Utah, Jan 16, 2017, https://wildaboututah.org/my-cougar-encounter/

Murie, O. J. (1982). Animal Tracks. Peterson Field Guides. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin. http://www.amazon.com/Peterson-Field-Guide-Animal-Tracks/dp/061851743X




Bears

Bear jams, bear stories, bear encounters, bear dreams – I’ve experienced all. Such was the case on our annual Teton trip where I was joined by over 25 USU students and others. Bison, birds, bugling elk, sparring moose, and always the highlight- bears.

Nothing quite compares with the mighty bruins to captures one’s imagination- a combination of fear and reverence. They have been with us for many millennia, our companions of the wild. Perhaps it’s their almost human traits and mystery, their intelligence and unpredictability.

Black bear, Ursus americanus, eating hawthorn berries, Wilson Road, Teton N.P. 10/7/18 Courtesy and Copyright Jack Greene, Photographer
Black bear, Ursus americanus, eating hawthorn berries, Wilson Road, Teton N.P. 10/7/18
Courtesy and Copyright Jack Greene, Photographer
This year’s bears were especially close as their feeding frenzy took them on the roads edge where an abundance of hawthorn berries awaited their rapacious apatite. All of this topped by both black and grizzly, two juveniles oblivious to our presence as they went about preparing for their long winter sleep.

Berry feeding grizzly bear, Ursus arctos horribilis, a few hundred yards further down the road, Wilson Road, Teton N.P. 10/7/18, Courtesy and Copyright Jack Greene, Photographer
Berry feeding grizzly bear, Ursus arctos horribilis, a few hundred yards further down the road, Wilson Road, Teton N.P. 10/7/18,
Courtesy and Copyright Jack Greene, Photographer
Utah’s bears are in the same macrophage mode. Unfortunately, our grizzlies disappeared with “Old Ephraim”, a magnificent animal of unusual size and intelligence, well up in years before his life was taken by a legendary trapper, Frank Clark. Frank was so moved as the great bears spirit was released by his bullet, that he ended his long career after killing well over 100 in the Bear River Range of northern Utah.

Sixty-two people nationwide have been killed by black bears over a 109 period, only one of those in Utah. Avalanches, bee stings, and lightning kill far more people. But many Utah bears have been killed by hunters averaging around 130 per year. A few of these are killed by those who feel threatened. In rare instances, black bear will bluff charge, or clack their jaws, which is actually expressing fear of humans. Running away is their normal behavior.

Although a precise count isn’t available, Utah’s black bear population is somewhere between 3,000 and 3,500 animals. In 2008, 314 bear hunting permits were issued and 134 animals taken. Although a hunter, I have no desire to kill a bear. I consider them my spirit animal, having been near them most of my days- from early years in N. Wisconsin, working in Denali and Yellowstone N.P.’s, and spending many years in bear infested wild country otherwise. Forested areas of Central and S. Utah have much higher bear populations than does the north end. I’ve seen only bear sign in our mountains, still hoping to get a glimpse one day.

“Observing a bear dancing in the golden rays of the sun, a Shoshone sage understood it to be a dance of gratitude as well as a prayer for the healing and protection of their young. From that point further the Shoshone have instigated their own Sun Dance where the bear is a central figure of the ritual, symbolizing protection, strength and continuation of life.” Jack G.

This is Jack Greene- and I continue to be Wild About Utah!

Credits:

Images: Courtesy Jack Greene
Audio: Courtesy Western Soundscape Archive, University of Utah, licensed under CCA-ND
Courtesy National Park Service
Text:     Jack Greene

Sources & Additional Reading:

Venefica, Avia Native American Bear Meaning, Whats Your Sign, https://www.whats-your-sign.com/native-american-bear-meaning.html

Welker, Glenn, Native American Bear Stories, Indigenous People, last updated 06/11/2016, http://www.indigenouspeople.net/bear.htm

Gates, Chuck, The bear truth: Utah’s black bears pose little danger to humans, Deseret News, Oct 15, 2009, https://www.deseretnews.com/article/705336743/The-bear-truth-Utahs-black-bears-pose-little-danger-to-humans.html

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/