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

Spring Testosterone

Spring Testosterone: Male House Finch Courtesy US FWS Gary Kramer, Photographer
Male House Finch
Courtesy US FWS
Gary Kramer, Photographer
Love is in the air! While shoveling snow, it seems a bit ludicrous to say “spring has arrived”, but here it is! I first noticed it 3 weeks ago when a burst of house finch tumbling notes filled the vapors. That was followed by a robin dusting of some rusty phrases which will soon be heard across the mid-latitudes of N. America.

What is one to think of such outrageous behavior as the snow continues to fall and the thermometer dips well below freezing? In one word-testosterone! This magical chemical is surging once again entirely dependent on the ratio of daylight to dark which has changed to such a degree that life helplessly submits to the urge for love.

Boxelder at Court of the Patriarchs,  Zions National Park Courtesy NPS Amy Gaiennie, Photographer
Boxelder at Court of the Patriarchs,
Zions National Park
Courtesy NPS
Amy Gaiennie, Photographer

Even plants are getting in the mood due to hormonal change in response to increasing length of daylight. If I were still teaching science at Logan High we would be tapping a spile into a box elder tree to catch the dripping sap and boil down on the Bunsen burner to delicious maple syrup. When we began this activity 32 years ago March was the month. It gradually changed to mid-February as the winter season shortened.

Death Camas Bryce National Park Courtesy US NPS
Death Camas
Bryce National Park
Courtesy US NPS
I’m guessing the tiny pink flower of stork’s bill geranium and yellow of biscuit root is already blooming beneath the snow on south facing slopes. Death camas leaves are beginning to poke through moist soil.
Snow geese and tundra swans are beginning to populate our open waters with sandhill cranes and many other species of waterfowl soon to follow.

Mountain Bluebird Pair Courtesy & Copyright Milt Moody, Photographer Utahbirds.org
Mountain Bluebird Pair
Courtesy & Copyright Milt Moody, Photographer
Utahbirds.org
In the heavens you may see golden eagles performing their talon locked tumbling courtship death plunge, and paired ravens cavorting in mid-air. Outrageously beautiful Mountain bluebirds begin decorating fence posts in the countryside. Clark’s nutcrackers are beginning their migration to ridgetops for nesting activities.

Great horned owls present a special case. Their hoots reached a fevered pitch during their January courtship period. Nesting begins in February but no nest building needed. They take the easy out by occupying other raptor nests, especially red tail hawks, crows, or a handy ledge. They are fierce defenders of their young and have caused injure to clueless humans who approach to near. The family unit will remain together into the fall season.
Coyotes and fox are in full courtship mode showing overt affection. Parents of both of these wily canids help with den preparation and rearing pups born a few months later. Both are common in native legends for the cunning and trickery.

“If the day should ever come when one may camp and hear not a note of the coyotes joyous stirring song, I hope that I shall long before have passed away, gone over the Great Divide.” Earnest T. Seton, American naturalist, author, activist and father of the Rocky Mountain N.P.

This is Jack Greene and I’m Wild about Wild Utah!

Credits:

Images:
    Male House Finch, Courtesy US FWS, Gary Kramer, Photographer
    Boxelder at Court of the Patriarchs, Zions National Park, Courtesy NPS, Amy Gaiennie, Photographer
    Death Camas, Bryce National Park, Courtesy US NPS
    Mountain Bluebird Pair, Courtesy & Copyright Milt Moody, UtahBirds.org
Audio: Contains Audio Courtesy and Copyright Kevin Colver
Text:     Jack Greene

Sources & Additional Reading:

Körner, Christian, Plant adaptation to cold climates, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5130066/

Have BoxElder Maple Trees? Make BoxElder Syrup! Quirky Science, https://www.quirkyscience.com/make-boxelder-syrup/

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