City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

June 13, 2017

June 3rd

Missing Frogs, Missing Beavers

5:30 p.m. It is the first day of a heat wave. On this Saturday, about forty people are strolling up and down the road. Wild geranium are open through mile 1.1 and are reaching their peak. Near mile 0.3, a cultivar green crab apple tree is bearing small fruit, now about 1 inch in diameter. It is another occurrence in the canyon that somehow was gone unnoticed by me and that seemingly occurs overnight. Chokecherry bushes at mile 0.2 are pollinated, their leafs are shriveled, and the ovaries are swelling with this falls fruit. This is a sign of the impending end of the vernal season and of the beginning of next estival season. Another invasive weed that follows cattle and cars, Yellow sweet clover (Melilotus officinalis) dominates the road’s edges through mile 2.0, along with the occasional rising bull thistle. Although an invasive, the Yellow sweet clover plants provide nourishment to a variety of bees and butterflies that can be seen feeding on them today.

Ants are busy cleaning the forest floor. On the road, two black ants drag a fly 3 times its body size and a boring bug 5 times its size back to their respective burrows. A common female worker Fuzzy-horned bumble bee (Bombus mixtus) is stranded on the road.

At Guardhouse Gate, another lost mallard chick cries loudly from the thick undergrowth, and despite searching, I am unable to locate it. This year’s stream water is too high, too fast, and out of synchronization with the mallard’s breeding cycle. The chicks are getting swept downstream from their parents. At mile 1.1, a community of six Warbling vireos exchange loud songs with a group of Song sparrows. As I exit the canyon, a loud cawing draws my attention upward, and in the calm wind, a Peregrine falcon furiously beats its wings in order to cross the canyon. The mallard chick is unseen below.

For another year, I am reminded of the absence of frogs in the lower canyon. There is year-round flowing water, and they should awaken with the arrival of insects.

* * * *

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on June 3rd, 1853, he notes the pine woods are full of birds, including robins, and notes painted cups are at their peak. He records that grey hairs have disappears from tree leaves. On June 3rd, 1854, huckle and blueberries perfume the air. On June 3rd, 1856, he finds a chickadee nest. On June 3rd, 1857, he sees pitch pine in blossom. June 3, 1860, he notes red maple seeds on the road, pine shoots rising from the ground, and that the air contains many scents.

* * * *

One never hears frogs in the lower or upper most reaches of the canyon, even though a suitable stream is present. Frogs are missing from the canyon because they are typically associated with lakes and beaver ponds. Historically, there was a lake in the highest City Creek Canyon glacial hanging valley, but by 2017, the lake is no longer present. Beavers are systematically removed by Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County in all of the Salt Lake valley canyons, including City Creek Canyon. With no beavers, there are no frogs. In April 2017, Salt Lake County threatened to fine a Salt Lake County homeowner 750 USD per day for not removing a beaver dam from their backyard that is adjacent to Big Willow Creek as it runs along the valley floor near the I-15 freeway. The county was concerned the beaver dam can break and clog a downstream water treatment plant. The property owner’s administrative appeal is still pending (Catalyst, May 2017). My last personal encounter with beavers in the Salt Lake valley canyons occurred in the early 1990s. For a summer, a few beaver constructed a dam in upper Millcreek Canyon, and City and County officials were slow to respond. The trailhead parking lot at the end of Millcreek Road was full, and a steady stream of urban hikers walked the mile up stream to watch the beaver and to see their dam. In the fall, the beaver were removed by watershed officers.

Because beavers are not present in the canyon, I have not included references to Thoreau’s many observations of frogs in my digests of his Concord journals.

Salt Lake City and County water managers fear beaver dams will create log jams that will break apart and flood downstream areas during years of high stream run-off. Although extricated from urban Salt Lake County, Utah’s beaver population is about 29,000 (Bassett et al, 2010). That is why their occasional appearance in Salt Lake County always causes much interest among the urban outdoor community.

The beaver has a long association with Utah Euro-american history. The first Euro-americans to reside in Utah were attracted here for beaver fur. Peter Skene Ogden, who led an early expedition to Utah, reported on May 13th, 1925 that his company had completed trapping their 2,000th beaver in Cache Valley, Utah (Rawley, 16) (March 3rd, above). The Utah State Capitol features four early Utah scenes painted into its dome’s pendentives, and one of the vignettes painted by Lee Greene Richards during a 1930s Works Progress Administration project was of three trappers, one of whom is kneeling over a beaver (Rawely, frontpiece).

Despite this association, Utah wildlife laws did not protect them. Early Utah wildlife protection laws divided wildlife into three categories: unregulated, noxious, and game. Territorial laws of 1872 protected game and other animals deemed beneficial by prohibiting hunting them during their breeding seasons. Quail, grouse, mallards, ducks, and other defined game birds generally could not be hunted between March and September, and deer, elk, antelope and mountain sheep could not be hunted from January through July (Rawley, 97). A territorial law of 1872, readopted with modifications as a new statute on Utah’s admission to the United States in 1896, defined noxious animals for which the state would pay a bounty. Noxious animals included lynxes, mountain lions, wolves, bears, jack rabbits, muskrats, weasels, minks, weasels, gophers, squirrels, prairie dogs, pelicans, blue cranes, loons, osprey, mergansers, and English sparrows (Rawley, 98). Essentially, the noxious list is any animal that was potentially bothersome to agriculture or ranching. For example, osprey have a taste for farm chickens and cougars a penchant for sheep. (A vestige of Utah’s early “noxious” animal list is Utah’s current coyote bounty program (Sept. 7th). Under that program, the State annually expends about 500,000 USD to pay 20 USD bounties for each coyote killed, and it harvests about 7,000 animals each year (id).) Bounties under the 1896 law ranged from two cents for a House sparrow egg up to 10 USD for a bear, or 63 cents to 316 USD, respectively, in 2017 currency. This left the beaver in the unregulated wildlife category, and hunters could take them in unlimited numbers.

As a result by 1890s, the beaver population had collapsed and they were rare in Utah (Bassett et al, 5). In 1899, the State Legislature prohibited the hunting of any beaver, and a recovery program was instituted that included the new Utah State Game and Fish Department reseeding beavers into Utah’s geographical basins (id at 5-7). By 1957, beaver populations had recovered, and in 1981, an unrestricted beaver hunt was re-instituted. This unrestricted hunt continues through the present (id, 7). In 2017, beaver, like all wildlife in Utah, is deemed property of the State, and it is regulated by the Utah Division of Wildlife Services. The State’s 2010 Beaver Management Plan (Bassett et al 2010) sets an objective of annually harvesting 3,500 of the state’s 29,000 beavers. The Division also maintains a list of active trappers certified to remove nuisance wildlife. Those individuals remove beavers deemed a nuisance in urban areas.

The collapse and recovery of Utah beavers has its parallels in other state showcase game wildlife. After the 1847 colonists’ “committee of extermination” removed all wildlife in the valley in 1850 (March 5th, above), after unrestricted hunting between 1850 and 1872, and after limited hunting restrictions between 1872 through 1900, state’s deer population collapsed (Sept. 7th). Utah elk were hunted to extinction, and during the 1920s had to be re-introduced (Barnes, “Mammals of Utah”).

The overall lesson from this history is that with effective government intervention and population management, both deer, elk, beaver and the Peregrine falcon (May 15th) recovered to their near pre-colonization levels.

* * * *

On June 3rd, 2001, Mayor Rocky Anderson said when he trains for running races, he goes up City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Tribune). On June 1, 1996, the Chavurah B’Yachad, Salt Lake City’s Reconstructionist Jewish Community has begun meeting for services in City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Tribune, June 15, 1996). On June 3rd, 1991, a Deseret News article recommends hiking from Dry Fork to the City Creek ridge. (This route was later developed into a Bonneville Shoreline Trail segment). On June 3rd, 1923, a party of 200 consisting of Boys Scouts and the Rotarians began clearing brush to support the new Rotary Park in upper City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Tribune). On June 3rd, 1921, City Engineer Sylvester Q. Cannon and Mayor C. Clarence Nelsen inspected a proposed dam site one-half mile up from Pleasant Valley that could hold 130,000,000 gallons of water (Salt Lake Telegram). Construction at an earlier dam site had be abandoned when the bedrock was found to be insufficient (id). In an editorial letter to the Salt Lake Telegram, J. W. Sloan argued that gravel pits should be removed from lower City Creek Canyon. He stated that “Some day this canyon will be recognized for what it is and should be, ‘the poor man’s paradise’. . . . City Creek canyon is the property of the people of Salt Lake City” (id). On June 3rd, 1906, Land and Water Commission Frank Mathews impounded 14 cows found illegally grazing in City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Telegram).

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