Thursday, March 26, 2009

Conserving and Celebrating

Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge, the wetland mecca of Utah’s west desert, will celebrate a 50th “birthday” this year! A lot of water has passed “under the water control structure” during that time and we invite all interested members of the public to join us in recognizing this august milestone. Many things have changed over the years but the commitment of the Refuge to providing outstanding wildlife habitat and protecting the biodiversity of this desert oasis has not.

To celebrate this notable benchmark, we will be hosting an exciting opportunity for natural history fans. Billed as a weekend of Wildlife, Wildlands, and History, this opportunity will provide visitors a chance to discover the very diverse array of natural history study that can be found by visiting the Refuge. Much more than just a haven for wildlife, the Refuge is a bastion of natural history in the broad context of the term.

Wildlife, Wildlands, and History will offer natural history seminars in six different topics dealing with the natural history of the Refuge and the environs surrounding it. They will offer a unique opportunity to natural history lovers to spend time in the field with experts who are intimately familiar with the topics listed.

Participants will accompany instructors for three-four hour classes in any of three sessions (two on Saturday, one Sunday). A potluck dinner is scheduled for 6:30 PM on Saturday. There will be a “campfire” presentation by Refuge Manager Jay Banta as well as a few “surprise” speakers. It is sure to be a fun evening with some very memorable reminiscing about 50 years of providing critical wildlife habitat in the most unlikely of places and you won’t want to miss this rare opportunity.

The level of instruction is suitable for anyone with a sincere interest in learning more about the Refuge. The seminars are designed to promote dialog and the exchange of ideas among the participants and faculty.

The dates for the seminars are Saturday May 9th, 8 AM to approximately 9 PM. This time includes two field seminar sessions, the potluck dinner, and the after dinner presentations. The third field seminar session will be held Sunday, May 10th from 8 AM to noon. We will hold the seminars rains or shine so come prepared for the possibility of precipitation.

The Refuge is located approximately 135 miles southwest of Salt Lake City. Commuting time is approximately 3.5 hours from Salt Lake City, with half of that distance being gravel roads. From Delta it is approximately 1.5 hours driving with 22 miles being gravel road.

Registered participants will be permitted to camp on the Refuge at designated sites on Friday May 8th and Saturday May 9th. All camping sites offered are primitive.
The registration deadline is Friday May 1. Each session is limited to a maximum of 20 participants and we expect many to fill quickly. Registrants should indicate a second and third choice for each session if they want to have the best chance of attending three different seminars. Space remaining in any seminars may be filled at the beginning of that session. Only by pre-registration can you be guaranteed space in any seminar! You will receive notification confirming your registration.


1. Fish Springs Archaeology Rachel Quist
2. Fish Springs Geology Matt Affolter
3. Fish Springs Field Botany Rodd Hardy
4. Terrestrial Birds of Fish Springs Terry Sadler
5. Aquatic Birds of Fish Springs Tom Neuman
6. Fish Springs: Crossroad of History Jay Banta & Joe Nardone

I hope you will be able to join us. It will be a fun weekend and an grand time. The registration form is available on our website at Please don't hesitate to give us a call at (435)831-5353, ext 2 or email us at for more information.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

How Wheeler Peak got its Name

From Kathy Rountree:

Wheeler Peak, or Mt. Wheeler if you prefer, hasn't always been called that. The first name of the mountain was Too-bur-rit. Recorded by Col. J.H. Simpson in 1858, he could not determine what this Indian name meant.

In 1855 Lt Colonel Steptoe called it Jefferson Davis Peak; Davis was at that time the Secretary of War of the United States and later the President of the Confederacy.

Members of The White Mountain Mission climbed the peak in 1855 and named it Williams Peak for the first white man to the top. There is a great description of the bristlecone pines in their journal. ..."looking for all the world like a canyon full of elk."

In 1859 Col. Simpson named it Union Peak "for its double yet connected form".

In 1869 Lt. Geo. M Wheeler and group of people from his survey climbed it from the west and called it Wheeler Peak.

The name must have been quite a controversy in the 1860's onward as the Civil War raged and sympathies for both North and South were present amongst the local population. Calling it Union Peak or Jeff Davis may have stirred up trouble. Boone Tilford who had mining claims south of Osceola at a place called Hogum, hailed from the south and in his diaries referred only to Jeff Davis Peak. Other accounts of the time refer to it as Union Peak.

Today, topographical maps show that both the names Wheeler and Jeff Davis are used: Wheeler Peak is the western one, at 13,063 feet, while Jeff Davis Peak is the eastern peak, at 12,771 feet. They are the second and third highest peaks in Nevada. From the town of Baker, Jeff Davis is the big mountain seen, blocking the view of Wheeler.

Interestingly this is not the only peak named for Wheeler. To the northeast of Taos, NM stands another Wheeler. It is near the same height and as you come to Taos from the west it looks much like Snake Valley.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

press release RE letter to governors of Utah and Nevada

Read a press release at
It talks about a letter sent by a group of scientists to the governors
of Utah and Nevada which you can read at

(if the links above wrap, just cobble them together or go to the Great Basin
Water Network site -- the story is very prominently displayed there

Feel free to pass around the press release and the letter.

This is a great job and all involved are to be greatly congratulated and thanked.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Desert Changes

Snake Valley has a quiet beauty valued by many people. The life-giving force in this desert is the water that flows beneath it. When viewed by air, one is struck by the amount of surface water visible in the desert.


Those of us who have lived in the desert for decades know better than to be fooled by the apparent largess of water. Much of the surface water is extremely shallow, fed by runoff, precipitation, and small springs. During drought years, the lack of rain dries up surface water, shrinks the springs, and destroys the surrounding vegetation. After several years of drought, old-timers can show dozens of examples of disappearing springs, dry wetlands, and dying vegetation.

Less obvious to the casual observer is the underground water system which slowly flows northward, emptying into the Great Salt Lake. Again, old-timers in the desert can point to signs of a struggling underground water system. Large patches of dead greasewood are one sign of a declining aquifer. Marshland and springs gone dry is another indisputable sign of a lowering aquifer. When native plants give way to Russian thistle (tumbleweeds) and halogeten, we know we're in trouble.

Desert animals have fascinating ways of conserving water, and some can survive on amazingly small amounts of water. Some of the most poignant examples of a desert struggling to exist are found in these animals.

Wild horses can range for miles in any direction, but they must have a dependable source of water. When their springs dry up due to pumping, the horses die.

The wily coyote will dig for water when his spring dries up, but he can only dig so deep.

Most frogs will migrate to new sources of water when their springs dry up, but the spotted frog refuses to leave his home. He will die when the spring dies. The spadefoot toad will sleep many months of the year in the moist ground, emerging only when awakened by pounding raindrops.

In the last decade, we have seen many springs dry up, greasewood die, and water table levels fall sharply. The ground near my home used to harbor toads. We'd hear them every night, and working in the garden, I would often be surprised by the sudden appearance of a toad hopping out of harm's way.

I love desert nights. The nighttime sky is unbelievable beautiful with its velvet background sprinkled with hundreds of thousands glittering stars. My stargazing is often accompanied by a symphony of desert sounds: the occasional nocturnal bird, the howling of coyotes, the chirping of crickets, and the bass croaking of frogs and toads. These sounds are, for me, the sounds of home, comfort, and friendship. But the extended drought is changing the symphony of night sounds. The howls of the coyote are more distant as they search for new sources of water. Many of the local springs where they once drank are now dry. The increased tempo of the crickets' chirp has a sound of desperation. Lack of rain has dried out the soil, putting the frogs and toads in peril. They are silent now in my part of the desert.


The struggle to preserve the desert, both for ourselves and for the wildlife, is intensifying. We need to be vigilant and activist to save it.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Fire & Rain

In less then a month it will be time for our annual effort at accomplishing our prescribed burns here at Fish Springs. These burning efforts are critical to how we manage the wetlands here and are a core part of keeping the marshes healthy and the wildlife that uses them well provided for.

Burning accomplishes a number of beneficial outcomes. At the top of our list is to release the nutrients that are tied up in the dense residual vegetation that characterizes our wetlands after several growing seasons. Most of these nutrients will remain in the basin after a burn and when we re-flood, they provide a big boost to the aquatic insects that quickly re-colonize. We have several years of study results to support that the first spring after burning and re-floodinging, the number of species and the total numbers of these aquatic insects make an incredible leap in productivity. These "water bugs" are the critical food for nearly all of the young of virtually all of the waterbirds that nest here at Fish Springs. Many will switch to a largely vegetarian diet when they are a bit older but the young forage almost exclusively on aquatic insects in the early stages when high protein levels are critical to fuel the rapid growth. We have seen that the waterfowl hens know where these prime brooding areas are and often move their busy broods some distance to take advantage of this smorgasbord!

Burning also reinvigorates the growth of the wetland vegetation in these impoundments. Much like a lawn that has not been mowed for sometime and then is mowed, and then given a big boost of fertilizer, in in this case in the form of all of these burn released nutrients, the plants grow back robust and higher in nutrient levels. This, in turn, attracts those of our wildlife constituency who are herbivores.

As a practical matter, burning also exposes dikes and ditches that have been obscured for a few years and give us a chance to perform any needed inspections and maintenance. More than once I have had a water control structure disappear in the vegetation only to starkly re-appear after a burn!

This year we will be burning Avocet Unit, our largest single burn in our five year burn cycle. At over 1,000 acres, it is quite a sight. While we do close much of the Refuge on burn day, we do invite any and all to come and observe from the Headquarters area or from up on the hill by the Pony Express monument. There will be flames in excess of 30' high and a smoke column that will probably be visible from quite far away. The exact date is not set but we are planning to burn during the week of March 16-20 if conditions are sufficient.

When one visits Fish Springs and see the incredible volume of water and the verdant wetlands, it is easy to forget that it sit in the middle of the desert. While I suspect that most folks define deserts by what they see in the form of vegetative cover, they are actually defined by precipitation. Generally speaking, deserts are defined at areas that receive less than 10" of precipitation each year. Certainly the eastern Great Basin meets that definition.

Our long term annual precipitation average here at Fish Springs is just over 8". However, the extended drought cycles of the last decade or more are working towards reducing that total in a rather precipitous manner. We have not had a year for over a decade where we reached that total. Our long term average annual snowfall at the Refuge is 15" and it has been nearly 15 years since we had a year where we reached or exceeded that average.

This past year, we were particularly hard hit during the critical spring and early summer period. Normally during this time period, the environs of around the Refuge would receive about 3-3.25" of rain. This past year from the beginning of April to late July we only had about 1.3". Normally these will come as smaller .25-.35" events with an occasionally gully washer.

These spring and summer rains are vital in the survival of our upland and salt desert scrub nesting bird species. These smaller but recurrent rains are often a critical trigger for egg and larval hatching for many desert insects. Just like the birds that nest on the Refuge wetlands, the birds who nest in these other habitats, regardless of what they might forage on as adults, are entirely depended on having an abundance of insects to raise young. This past year we saw very poor production due to the fact that many broods simply could not find enough insects to thrive and reach adult stage.

Let's hope for a wet spring. Because it does not matter if you need it for raising a crop of hay, raising a garden, keeping the flow going to a favorite trout stream, of for precipitating an insect hatch for raising young birds, it is critical to the life blood of the desert. As my beloved friend Leah Layland always reminded me, "There is never a bad time for rain in the West Desert. Sometimes it sure isn't very convenient but it is never bad!"