Thursday, March 01, 2012

Canyonland Creek Ecology

From June 12-27 of 2004 I attended an Earthwatch project entitled “Canyonland Creek Ecology” in Utah’s Canyonland National Park. Earthwatch is an organization that allows non-scientists, that is average people like you and me to help out with actual hands-on research on a myriad of different projects. Their website has a listing of what they offer and I encourage everyone to check this out.

In 1994 a backcountry management plan was established by the Canyonlands NPS (National Park Service) after consulting with scientists and the public over concerns as to whether or not the existence of 4WD recreational vehicles in the park were having negative impacts on the vegetation and wildlife there. 4WD enthusiasts felt that what they were doing had little if any impact. The NPS compromised by allowing limited number of vehicles per day. An environmental group decided to sue the NPS over its management of the 4WD roads, feeling that allowing any of this activity was harmful to the already known fragile environment there and that the NPS was in violation of the backcountry management plan for allowing even a limited amount. All of this went to court and a judge decided to close down a section of the road near Salt Creek agreeing that the ecosystems were being harmed. In turn, the 4WD enthusiasts decided to file their own lawsuit trying to overturn the ruling. The NPS asked to be able to access the issues and that’s when Dr. Tim Graham, an ecologist who works for the USGS (United States Geological Service), decided to seize this opportunity to see how the removal of vehicular recreation affected the vegetation, amphibians (toads), and invertebrates (specifically insects). So we collected insects and amphibians in an area where 4WD vehicles had been refused access for the last 5 ½ years and this data would be later compared to the data of other sample sites where it is still allowed. This collected data “can provide park managers, and the courts, with info about the condition of the different parts of Salt Creek whether they differ and if so, how”. So our project and the work we did could play a pivotal role in the ultimate fate of Salt Creek and the organisms that live there. That’s pretty much the project in a nutshell.

After a four hour wait at the airport in Salt Lake City, Utah I boarded the Bighorn Express shuttle for a 4 ½ hour ride to Moab. Once there other team members along with myself, met up with Tim and his two assistants and then went to a restaurant to dine and get acquainted.

We checked into the Lazy Lizard youth hostel and spent the first few days sorting insects at the Canyonland Field Institute in Moab that had been collected by prior teams, which was really interesting. They gave us a quick course on insect identification and then sat us at our own dissecting microscope where we separated the insects and arachnids (spiders, scorpions, mites, etc.) that had been caught in the various traps, preserving each in its own vial of isopropyl alcohol along with a label.

After three days of this we packed our belongings into our backpacks and loaded the vehicle with supplies and gear and drove to the Needles District of Canyonlands and parked at a camp site (known as "Peekaboo") which we would make use of later. We then hit the trail and hiked a long, hot, rugged 8.5 miles, and believe me it was every bit of that distance. The terrain was constantly changing, as one minute we were hiking through deep sand, then pea gravel, then over large river rocks. The scenery though was breathtaking. All around there was prickly pear cactus, blackbush, snakeweed, canyon walls, and cheatgrass, which has a way of working itself into your socks. Several times we came across black bear tracks in the sandy parts of the trail, but unfortunately we never saw the bear.

We arrived at the Angel Arch campsite about 4 hours later where we pitched our tents in the (nice) shade provided by two large cottonwood trees. The first morning, and the following days after, we would hike about 3 miles to the study site where we put all of the various types of traps in service. We used four types of traps:

Pitfall Traps- There were three rows of these types of traps with five pitfalls per row. The pitfall consisted of a container buried in the ground that contained a smaller container which held about 3 inches of soapy water. We added soap to the water in order to break surface tension, which prevented the bugs from floating and getting out. They would sink like a rock and drown. A funnel was placed over these containers and as you will see in the photos a long plastic “wall” ran along each of the pitfalls. An insect crawling along would bump into the wall and then turn and follow it eventually walking right into the path of a funnel and into the trap.

Window Traps- These consisted of a square piece of plexiglass hung over a dishpan filled with soapy water. These were hung from small trees about 4 foot above the ground. You guessed it….an insect would be flying along and run smack into the piece of plexiglass or “window” and drop into the soapy water below.

Bowl Traps- These consisted of four sets of four Styrofoam bowls, each containing soapy water. One was plain water and the other three contained water with food coloring. There was yellow, blue, and red. Insects would come along and crawl or fly into the soapy water and sink. The colors were added to see if specific insects were attracted to specific colors.

Bucket Traps- these consisted of 5 gallon buckets sunk into the ground with plastic walls leading to them as with the pitfall traps. These were used for trapping toads, which were identified, weighed, measured, and then released. Most of the toads captured were of the Woodhouse variety, along with the occasionally Red-spotted toad. We also caught lots of Whiptail lizards along with a few scorpions.

Each day we would take each of the insect traps and strain the insects from the soapy water using small aquarium nets, then put the traps back in service.

The insects were then put in appropriately labeled plastic film canisters containing isopropyl alcohol as a preservative and would later be sorted.

As far as our meals go- breakfast consisted of bagels, fruit, peanut butter. Lunch consisted mostly of sandwiches, sausage, cheese, fruit, carrots, cookies, etc. Dinner was dried lentils with tortillas, or pasta, or some other type of freeze dried food that was reconstituted with hot water boiled on our camp stove.

Our drinking water came from a small pond near the camp. It was collected in buckets and then pump through a filter into our water bottles. They also had powdered Gatorade that we could add to make up for all of the salt we lost from sweating.

The weather was hot during the day reaching sometimes close to 100, but the low humidity helped tremendously. At night temperatures would drop into the 60's making it nice for sleeping. One afternoon we finished early around 11:00 a.m., ate our lunch and then lazed around the campsite.

Dark clouds began to form overhead and thunder soon followed. The wind picked, followed by a light steady shower dropping the temperature about 20 degrees, so we climbed into our tents to relax and enjoy this soothing storm, which lasted about 3-4 hours. As I said before each day we would get up every morning around 7 a.m. for breakfast and then by 8 a.m. begin the 3 mile hike to the trap area to collect insects and toads that were caught the night before.

During a couple of those days we went out at night with headlamps and performed what was called a “toad survey”. We would spread out, covering a predetermined area and collect, identify, measure, and weigh every toad we came across.

There was one night we found 74 toads, mostly Woodhouse, but we also captured a few of the Red-spotted toads, which were the ones that did all of the peeing when you picked them up. Not talking about a dribble either. I’m talking about a gush. We got lots of laughs from this.

We took a side hike one day to catch a glimpse of the rock art or petroglyphs on a rock face near one of the trap sites. These were drawn by the Anasazi (in Navajo it means “Ancient Ones”) Indians some 800 years ago.

They were basket makers and farmers and lived in pueblo type structures. There were paintings of warriors, handprints, and animals. Some of the handprints had been blown on the rock. This was done by placing natural made pigment inside a hollow bird bone and blown on a hand that was placed on the rock. Incredible how this art has stood the test of time.

I had hoped to come across a rattlesnake, but unfortunately I didn't see any, but did get my hands on several gopher snakes. Each time they became entangled in the thick brush piles where I caught them and had to let go or risk injuring them. We also saw several whipsnakes, and there were tiger whiptail lizards everywhere you looked, always rustling in the brush looking for something to eat.

They were very quick and pretty much impossible to catch by hand. We did find several in the toad traps enabling me to get a nice photo. As far as birds go I saw pinion jays, yellow-breasted chats, towhees, and violet green swallows. Ravens were also very common, which are very crafty and intelligent. One stayed around our camp for days cawing from a cottonwood branch as if to try and annoy us into leaving. Tim warned us not to leave anything out, because they would either eat it, haul it off, or tear it up. One popped in while we were gone and got into one of our food containers discovering a bag of sugar. There was sugar everywhere which we had to clean up to prevent an ant raid. Someone else had left a paperback book out and it had the cover torn off. There were others camping near us and two ravens raided several of their backpacks, figuring out how to unzip them and then scattered clothes and whatever else all over the place. It was pretty hilarious. We warned them…..

Lots of folks asked me….”where did you go to the bathroom?” Easy…..we dug a hole in the ground with the community garden trowel, squatted, and did your business. As Ed Abbey once said “Instead of flushing our bodily wastes into the public water supply, we plant them back in the good earth where they belong. Where our bodies must go as well, in due course, if we are to keep the good earth productive”. On the fifth day we packed up and hiked back the 8.5 miles to where we had parked the truck and I must say that the second time was not quite as strenuous. I later found out the reason for this was that on the way in we were gradually traveling uphill….on the way back, naturally, downhill. We unpacked again, set up camp and stayed at this particular site for four more days. We ran two traps sites near there following the same collecting procedures.

On the way back to town we stopped for a picnic near what is known as Newspaper Rock Historical Monument. It is a large petroglyph panel etched in sandstone done by the Anasazi, Navajo, Fremont Indians, and Anglo cultures recording some 2,000 years of human activity in the area. There were lots of images drawn of very large feet. Had they seen Bigfoot??

On our last day we pretty much goofed off. We rode over to Arches National Park and hiked to the various arches which were formed from 100 million years of erosion. Scenery, again, was breathtaking.

This park contains the largest concentration (more than 2000 catalogued) of natural sandstone arches in the world and other geological features such as spires, pinnacles, pedestals and balanced rocks all up against incredible layouts of buttes and canyons.

We stopped of to see the Turnbow Cabin at Wolfe Ranch. Ed Abbey spoke of this rustic structure in his book Desert Solitaire. We then hiked the 1.5 mile trail following the "cairns" that had been set up by visitors to help you find your way to the most widely-recognized landmark in the park- Delicate Arch.

The arch itself is pretty much hidden from view until you get to the last corner and then suddenly it’s there, and what a sight it is.

I was blown away at the size of this arch as you see in the photo where I’m standing below it with my arms raised.

As usual with every Earthwatch project I’ve been on everyone involved (project coordinator, assistants, etc.) were all extremely nice and generous with their knowledge. Always going out of their way to make sure we were having a good time and that we were seeing everything-scenery, parks, wildlife, etc. we wanted to see. Neither words nor pictures do justice in depicting the immensity and beauty of all the canyons and rock formations that we were exposed to. You would definitely have to be there to get the full effect.

If you ever have the opportunity to attend an Earthwatch project do not hesitate. You’ll not regret it.

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