Utah Porcupines

Utah Porcupines: North American Porcupine Erethizon dorsatum Courtesy US FWS Tom Koerner, photographer
North American Porcupine
Erethizon dorsatum
Courtesy US FWS
Tom Koerner, photographer
It was late evening at our 3rd annual Utah Youth Environmental Summit at the Wasatch Mountain Lodge above Brighton Ski Resort. We were winding down the day when someone happened to look out the window which elicited a high volume shriek.

“What is it?!” A gnarly looking beast had cozied up to the window. Its face was a mixture of the grotesque and cuteness. A throng of students rushed to the window. “A porcupine!!” None of the 30 students had seen one in the wild. The questions began. “Can it shoot its quills at you?” “What do they eat?” “Do they bite?” “Do they hibernate”? And so on.

Utah Porcupines: North American Porcupine Erethizon dorsatum Courtesy US FWS Lisa Hupp, photographer
North American Porcupine
Erethizon dorsatum
Courtesy US FWS
Lisa Hupp, photographer
Having grown up in the north woods of Wisconsin and Michigan, I could answer most of their questions. No, it does not shoot its quills, but beware of its strong tail which it uses to impregnate quills with a quick slap at the assailant. And no, it doesn’t hibernate and yes, they can bite! Further, they are excellent swimmers and tree climbers. Also, their quills, which are similar to our fingernails made of keratin, can regrow once lost.
Unfortunately, most of the porcupines I’ve happened on have been road kills. The others have been in trees where they may spend considerable time eating the bark and stems. A large pile of fecal material may be found at the trees base similar to that of grouse in shape and size.

Another thing I learned is they adore outhouses and will greatly enlarge the holes as whey chew away the salty urine flavored wood. They also have a penchant for ax handles and canoe paddles where salt accumulates from ones laboring hands.

They are long lived- up to 30 years in captivity. I later learned that our Wasatch Mountain Lodge beast had become habituated, a regular visitor looking for a bit of garbage or a treat.

A few other tidbits worthy of note. Porcupines tend to be solitary animals except for when they are mating or caring for their young. They can use caves, old trees, and logs to create their dens, in which they may remain for many days in inclement weather. They possess a wide-variety of calls including moans, grunts, coughs, wails, whines, shrieks and tooth clicking.

Utah Porcupines: Porcupine in a Tree Erethizon dorsatum Courtesy US FWS Public Domain
Porcupine in a Tree
Erethizon dorsatum
Courtesy US FWS
Public Domain
Late summer and early fall are the mating times. They make a great deal of vocalizations to draw a mate to them and to keep other males out of the area. Males become very aggressive, the strongest winning the female for which he will dance and then urinate on her for further affection. What!! Typically only one young is born seven months later. The baby’s quills are very soft for delivery, then harden after an hour. They remain with mother for about 6 months.

Predators are often deterred by the rattling of its hollow quills after which an offensive odor may occur. If the above threats fail, the porcupine will attack by running sideways or backwards while swinging its quilled tail in the direction of the predator.

Their magical quills are being researched by medical scientists to create adhesives, improve needle penetration, and for antibacterial properties. They also had extensive use by Native Americans for exquisite decorative purposes, and their bodies served up a fine meal- with quills removed!

This is Jack Greene and I’m wild about Utah porcupines!

Credits:

Pictures: Courtesy US FWS, Lisa Hupp and Tom Koerner, photographers
Sound: Courtesy
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Can a Porcupine Shoot its Quills? Smithsonian Channel, youTube, March 2, 2015,

Porcupines, Wild Aware Utah, (Utah DWR, Hogle Zoo, USU Cooperative Extension) https://www.wildawareutah.org/utah-wildlife-information/porcupines/

Cougars in Utah

Cougars in Utah: FemaleF43, Butterfield Canyon, 2009 Courtesy and Copyright David Stoner
Female F43, Butterfield Canyon, 2009
Courtesy and Copyright David Stoner
Cougars are more widely distributed in Utah than many residents realize. These shy cats are found across the state. They roam from the high Uinta Mountains to the dry southern deserts.

David Stoner, assistant professor in the Department of Wildland Resources in the Quinney College of Natural Resources who has studied cougars for the past two decades said, “[Cougars] are common in terms of their distribution, but are rare in terms of their numbers. They live in many places but there are never a lot of them, typically occurring at densities of 1 adult per 20 square miles.

Stoner continues, “They’re just a big cat. Most of us are familiar with a house cats, and know how they behave, their movements, and idiosyncrasies. The main difference is their size. Cougars can be as large as humans [males usually range between 110 to 180 lbs.] They have evolved to take prey larger than themselves. You see this in the size of their muzzle – the mouth, nose and jaw. All of that is much larger in a cougar relative to its own body than a house cat. This becomes even more dramatic in the really big cats like tigers and lions with very large muzzles.

Stoner partnered with Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) to study cougars in two Utah areas, one of which was Monroe Mountain in Fishlake National Forest.

Mother named F61 (face showing), daughter (F58c) (facing away) Approx 1.5 yrs old in January 2011. Location: Kennecott mine, Bingham Canyon in the Oquirrh Mountains, Utah Courtesy and Copyright McLain Mecham, Photographer
Mother named F61 (face showing), daughter (F58c) (facing away) Approx 1.5 yrs old in January 2011. Location: Kennecott mine, Bingham Canyon in the Oquirrh Mountains, Utah
Courtesy and Copyright McLain Mecham, Photographer
The researchers noticed an unusual movement pattern of juveniles on the mountain. When the young were ready to leave their mothers they could have migrated in any direction to find good habitat but they disproportionately chose to go either NE or SE. This perplexed the researchers.

At about the same time the cougar research was winding down, DWR was starting a mule deer monitoring program.

Stoner said, “We were very fortunate. What DWR found was the Monroe Mountain deer herd were mostly migrating NE and SE. I looked back at our data and found the cougars who were leaving Monroe were going in the same direction as the deer migrations, the young cougars were tracking the deer herds.

Due to their hunting methods and nutritional needs, cougars require large home ranges. Researchers gathered data from NV, UT and AZ to represent a wide range of environmental conditions from very dry systems close to Las Vegas to relatively wet systems along Wasatch front.

Stoner explains, “We found the size of the home ranges…varied with precipitation. The wettest areas the cougars had the smallest home ranges, because of the abundance of prey in these highly productive systems. Females tend to have ranges strictly based on the food they need. The male’s range is much larger because they are looking for breeding opportunities, so they overlap numerous females. These ranges can be quite large. One collared male had a home range of over 2,500 square miles, which was visible on maps at the scale of the entire western United States.”

When it comes to human interactions with cougars, Utah has been very fortunate. In the past 100 years, no humans have been killed by a cougar. In hopes of maintaining this record, DWR keeps safety tips on its website. The most important tip is to never run from a cougar, this will cause them to instinctively think you are prey and begin the chase. If you have a child with you pick them up. Stand firm and look intimidating, let it know you’ll fight back. Your goal is to scare them off.

With the wise actions of humans, Stoner and DWR hope this majestic cat will continue to flourish in Utah.

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

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy & Copyright © David Stoner
Audio: Courtesy
Principal Investigator: David Stoner, https://qcnr.usu.edu/directory_cv/D.Stoner_CV_10-2016.pdf
Text: Shauna Leavitt, USGS Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University

Sources & Additional Reading

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

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

Boling, Josh, Wild Cats, Wild About Utah, December 10, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/wild-cats/

Löe J. and E. Röskaft. 2004. Large Carnivores and Human Safety: A Review. AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment Aug 2004 : Vol. 33, Issue 6, pg(s) 283-288 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/8328070_Large_Carnivores_and_Human_Safety_A_Review

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

Habitat Heroes Explore More Utah Biomes

Utah is a wildly diverse place. Ecological and biological diversity are usually tied to an abundance of water; but here in Utah, despite our relative lack of the wet stuff, we boast of at least nine unique biomes spanning from the low-elevation Mojave Desert around St. George to the high Alpine Tundra of our many snowcapped mountain ranges. You can think of a biome as a large community of similar organisms and climates or a collection of similar habitats. Just recently, my third grade students wrapped up a semester-long investigation into seven of those biomes found in Utah including the high Alpine Tundra, Riparian/Montane Zone, Sagebrush Steppe, Wetlands, and the Great Basin, Colorado Plateau, and Mojave Deserts. We explored those biomes by way of researching a specific animal endemic in Utah to each of those biomes. We called our project “Habitat Heroes.” I’ll let a few of my students explain their findings.

(Student readings)
Zach's Rubber Boa  Head, Tongue and Scales Courtesy & Copyright EBLS (Full Student Name Redacted)
Zach’s Rubber Boa
Head, Tongue and Scales
Courtesy & Copyright EBLS
(Full Student Name Redacted)
Zach’s Rubber Boa:
My name is Zach, and my animal is the rubber boa. The rubber boa lives in the riparian/montane biome in Utah. The rubber boa eats shrews, mice, small birds, lizards, snakes, and amphibians and is usually found along streams and in forests and in meadows.
Noah's Ringtail Courtesy & Copyright EBLS (Full Student Name Redacted)
Noah’s Ringtail
Courtesy & Copyright EBLS (Full Student Name Redacted)
Noah’s Ringtail:
This is Noah, and I’ve been studying the ringtail. The ringtail lives in the cold desert biome on the Colorado Plateau in Utah. The ringtail is gray and furry with a long black and white tail. How ringtails catch their food: number one-being very sly and waiting for the right time. They live in rocky deserts, caves, and hollow logs.
Muskrat Collage Courtesy & Copyright EBLS (Full Student Name Redacted)
Muskrat Collage
Courtesy & Copyright EBLS (Full Student Name Redacted)
The Muskrat:
My animal’s the muskrat. The muskrat lives in the wetland biome in Utah. Muskrats live in Mexico, Canada, and the United States where there are marshes, ponds, and vegetated water. Muskrats go out at night and find food like aquatic plants, grass, and fish. They have special abilities that can be used for a very special reason to help them survive.

Elizah's Long-tailed Weasel Courtesy & Copyright EBLS (Full Student Name Redacted)
Elizah’s Long-tailed Weasel
Courtesy & Copyright EBLS
(Full Student Name Redacted)
Elizah’s Weasel:
My name is Elizah, and my animal is the long-tailed weasel. The long-tailed weasel lives in the Great Basin biome in Utah. They are brown and yellow all year long except for winter. They are white during winter. [The] long-tailed weasel’s scientific name is Mustela frenata. They are mostly nocturnal.

In addition to researching the different biomes and learning about the adaptations animals must possess in order to survive there, these third graders have been visiting the several biomes local to Cache Valley and investigating their research animals’ habitats. These experiences have been powerful in helping students realize what it’s really like to exist in the wilds of Utah.

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

Investigating Beaver Habitats Along Temple Fork Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS
Investigating Beaver Habitats Along Temple Fork
Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS
Exploring an alpine-type biome along beaver creek Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS
Exploring an alpine-type biome along beaver creek
Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS
Flying like the birds; Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS
Flying like the birds; Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge
Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS
Looking at tree migration in Green Canyon Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS
Looking at tree migration in Green Canyon
Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS
Investigating Beaver Curtis Creek wanderings; Hardware Ranch; Blacksmith Fork Canyon Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS
Investigating Beaver Curtis Creek wanderings; Hardware Ranch; Blacksmith Fork Canyon
Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS

Credits:
Images:
    Artwork Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling’s 3rd Grade students
    Photos Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, Edith Bowen Laboratory School Field Experience Director
Sound:
Text: Josh Boling, 2017, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Sources & Additional Reading

Boling, Josh and students, Habitat Heroes Explore Utah Biomes, Wild About Utah, Mar 4, 2019, https://wildaboututah.org/utah-biomes/

Edith Bowen Laboratory School, https://edithbowen.usu.edu/

Biomes, Kimball’s Biology Pages, http://www.biology-pages.info/B/Biomes.html

Mission Biomes, NASA Earth Observatory, https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/experiments/biome

The World’s Biomes, University of California Museum of Paleontology, UC Berkeley, https://ucmp.berkeley.edu/glossary/gloss5/biome/

Yellowstone Elk’s response to Wolves

Yellowstone Elk’s response to Wolves: Female Yellowstone Elk Courtesy & Copyright Bonnie McDonald
Female Yellowstone Elk Courtesy & Copyright Bonnie McDonald
Arguably the most scientifically-important (and controversial) elk herd in the world, because it has been scrutinized and studied the longest, is in Yellowstone National Park.

The first professional study of the herd was started in 1916 and the herd has been at the center of debates about the forces that shape wildland ecosystems ever since.

Yellowstone Elk’s response to Wolves: Spring Elk Herd Courtesy Utah DWR, Tom Becker, Photographer
Spring Elk Herd
Courtesy Utah DWR, Tom Becker, Photographer
In addition to providing insight into ecosystems, the Northern Yellowstone elk have been an important source population for restoring other elk herds in the United States and Canada where they were eliminated during the late 1800s. Many elk herds in North America trace their ancestry to translocated elk from northern Yellowstone.

Yellowstone Elk’s response to Wolves: Utah Cow & Bull Elk Courtesy & Copyright Greg Sheehan
Utah Cow & Bull Elk
Courtesy & Copyright Greg Sheehan
The herd has a seasonal migration route that stretches from the Paradise Valley in southwest Montana to the southern boundary of Yellowstone National Park – a distance of 80 miles.

Prior to the Yellowstone’s establishment in 1872, market hunting decimated the elk herd, reducing it to a few thousand animals. Through the 20th century the population gradually grew and in 1994 it reached a peak of over 19,000.

Yellowstone Elk’s response to Wolves: Collared Yellowstone Wolf Courtesy & Copyright Matt Metz
Collared Yellowstone Wolf Courtesy & Copyright Matt Metz
A year later, the first of 41 grey wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone.

People wondered what impact these wolves would have on the Yellowstone herd since elk are the main source of food for the canines.

Dan MacNulty, associate professor in the Department of Wildland Resources in the Quinney College of Natural Resource at USU, who has been studying Yellowstone wolves for the past two decades said, “people were concerned wolves were inducing a landscape of fear which was changing the way elk were using their habitat.”

They imagined the poor creatures hiding in less than ideal habitats because they had been chased off by the wolves.

However, studies conducted by MacNulty and others have since revealed that elk continue to maintain regular access to all their usual habitats irrespective of wolves. In one recent study, for example, MacNulty and his team found adult female elk established and maintained winter home ranges without regard to several measures of wolf predation risk including the density of wolves and the risky areas where wolves often kill elk.

Yellowstone Elk’s response to Wolves: Female Yellowston Elk Defending Herself From a Wolf Courtesy & Copyright Robert Landis
Female Yellowston Elk Defending Herself From a Wolf
Courtesy & Copyright Robert Landis
Elk coexist with wolves in a variety of ways. One way is elk use the riskier areas of the landscape when wolves are resting, which is in the afternoon and, surprisingly, at night. Wolves don’t have ideal vison for nocturnal hunting, so they often settle down after sunset and resume hunting at dawn. These nightly lulls in wolf activity allow elk to graze the open grasslands in relative safety.

But even when wolves are on the prowl, elk don’t seem to go out their way to avoid them. MacNulty’s recent study found the rate at which elk encountered wolves was no different from what was expected if elk simply ignored wolves. This is possible because elk often survive their encounters with wolves, owing to their larger size, aggressive demeanor, and herding behavior. As a result, elk seem to place greater emphasis on finding food than on avoiding wolves.

The emerging picture is that the effect of wolves on the northern Yellowstone elk herd is defined by wolves eating rather than scaring elk. How much this consumptive effect actually matters for elk population growth is the focus of ongoing research. One clue that it may not matter too much is the elk population has been steadily growing since 2012.

MacNulty cautions that we should recognize the complexity of the Yellowstone ecosystem and resist the urge to jump to conclusions, and instead rely on patient data-gathering to test what may seem obvious.

Nature can be full of surprises.

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

Credits:
Photos:
    Courtesy & Copyright Dan MacNulty
    Courtesy & Copyright Tom Becker
    Courtesy & Copyright Greg Sheehan
Audio: Courtesy and Copyright Kevin Colver
Text: Shauna Leavitt

Sources & Additional Reading

Hillyard, Traci, MacNulty, Dan, Yellowstone Elk Don’t Budge for Wolves say Scientists, Utah State Today, Utah State University, Tuesday, Mar. 26, 2019, https://www.usu.edu/today/?id=58299

Hillyard, Traci, Cotterill, Gavin, Hidden Costs of Disease to Greater Yellowstone Elk, Utah State Today, Utah State University, Monday, Oct. 29, 2018, https://www.usu.edu/today/?id=58055

Hillyard, Traci, MacNulty, Dan, Kohl, Michel, Yellowstone’s ‘Landscape of Fear’ Not So Scary After All, Utah State Today, Utah State University, Tuesday, Friday, Jun. 22, 2018, https://www.usu.edu/today/?id=57785

Elk, Yellowstone National Park, US National Park Service, US Department of the Interior, https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/nature/elk.htm

French, Brett, Famous Yellowstone elk herd rebounds two decades after wolf reintroduction, tar-Tribune Feb 3, 2018, https://trib.com/outdoors/famous-yellowstone-elk-herd-rebounds-two-decades-after-wolf-reintroduction/article_0f7eefd9-484b-5060-a68d-2ebfbed2b054.html