Echoes of Lake Bonneville

Echoes of Lake Bonneville: North Spring, Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge, Utah. Courtesy Utah Geological Survey
North Spring, Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge, Utah. Courtesy Utah Geological Survey

Leland Harris wetlands, Snake Valley, Utah, Courtesy Utah Geological SurveyLeland Harris wetlands
Snake Valley, Utah
Courtesy Utah Geological Survey

Least Chub, Courtesy and Copyright Mark C. Belk, PhotographerLeast Chub
Courtesy & © Mark C. Belk, Photographer
Echoes of Lake Bonneville

Hi, I’m Holly Strand of the Quinney College of Natural Resources at Utah State University.

Deserts are dry by definition receiving an average of less than 10 inches of precipitation a year. In Utah’s cold West Desert, this skimpy amount of moisture slakes the thirst of sagebrush, saltbush or greasewood, but not much else. However, just like the Sahara, the West Desert has its oases. In certain lowland valleys you’ll find complexes of pools and marshes. There isn’t enough rain to form these freshwater sanctuaries. The water comes from giant underground aquifers.

Underneath the West Desert, the aquifer system acts as a storehouse for runoff from the surrounding mountains. As rainwater or snow melt enters or “recharges” the aquifer system, water pressure can build up in some areas. This pressure moves water through cracks and tunnels within the aquifer, and sometimes this water flows out naturally in the form of springs.

These desert springs–and the resulting pools and marshes–permit concentrations of animals and plants not possible under normal desert conditions. You’ll find sedges, rushes cattails and many other wetland plants. Both migratory and year round birds congregate here. There are even a couple of frog species—the Colombian spotted frog and the northern leopard frog.

But most remarkable are the desert spring residents that have survived from the days when the West Desert formed the floor of giant Lake Bonneville. Surveys have revealed a number of relict snails and other mollusks that still persist from that time. Some, like the Black Canyon Pyrg exist at a single spring complex only; they are found nowhere else on earth.

Certain native fish were also left high and dry by Lake Bonneville’s recession. The least chub is a good example. Now the sole member of its genus, this 3-inch long survivor is an unassuming but attractive little minnow. It is olive-colored on top and sports a gold strip on its steel-blue sides. It swims in dense but orderly schools in either flowing or still water. It can withstand both temperature variations and high salinity. The ability to tolerate different physical conditions has undoubtedly helped the least chub survive the post-Lake Bonneville millennium. Even so, the least chub was hanging on in only six different locations until Utah’s Division of Wildlife Resources reintroduced it to several more sites within its historic range. The Division and its conservation partners are still working to reduce threats to the least chub, to other spring residents and to the spring habitats themselves.

For more information and pictures go to

Thanks to Chris Keleher of Utah’s Department of Natural Resources for his help in developing this Wild About Utah story.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Holly Strand.


Theme: Courtesy & Copyright Don Anderson Leaping Lulu
Image: Least Chub, Mark C. Belk, Professor of Biology, Brigham Young University
Image: Wetlands, Courtesy Utah Geological Survey
Text: Holly Strand, Quinney College of Natural Resources at Utah State University

Sources & Additional Reading

Bailey, Carmen L., Kristine W. Wilson Matthew E. Andersen. 2005. CONSERVATION AGREEMENT AND STRATEGY FOR LEAST CHUB (IOTICHTHYS PHLEGETHONTIS) IN THE STATE OF UTAH Publication Number 05-24 Utah Division of Wildlife Resources a division of Utah Department of Natural Resources

Jones, Jennifer, Rich Emerson, and Toby Hooker. 2013. Characterizing Condition in At-risk
Wetlands of Western Utah: Phase I UTAH GEOLOGICAL SURVEY a division of Utah Department of Natural Resources,

Nature Serve entry for Least Chub:

Hanks, Joseph H. and Mark C. Belk. 2004. Threatened fishes of the world: Iotichthys phlegethontis Cope, 1874 (Cyprinidae) in Environmental Biology of Fishes, Vol. 71. N. 4., Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Sigler W. F. & J. W. Sigler. 1996. Fishes of Utah, A Natural History. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City. 375 pp.

Wasatch Front Canyons Geologic Tour, Virtual Tour created from Published Booklet (pdf) Geologic Guide to the Central Wasatch Front Canyons, Utah Geological Survey, State of Utah,

Geologic guides to the central Wasatch Front Canyons, Utah Geological Survey, 2005, [updated January 2024]