City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

March 14, 2017

March 14th

Flooding of City Creek’s Delta – Part V

1:30 p.m. An early spring arrives; the temperature is in the seventies. The canyon continues to be flooded with walkers, runners and bicyclists during the middle of a workday, and this may be driven in part by the fact that the local university is on spring break. Near mile 0.4, I watch a large raptor soaring next to the high cliff walls on the canyon’s west-side for several minutes, and then it dives into a nesting site in cliff wall. Raptors are known to nest there through mid-June. Although trees continue in their somnolence, insects respond instantly overnight. I estimate 500 Box Elder bugs are active in the first mile. Their abdominal segments are a bright red-orange, and this aids them in locating each other for their many mating orgies that I pass on the road. Gnats are in abundance, the first houseflies appear, and I see the first wasp of the season. I count five butterflies of four different types. The first is a large black butterfly with a white trailing edge, probably a Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa), and the second mid-size butterfly with black wings and a trailing red-orange band is probably an early Red Admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta). A White Cabbage butterfly is seen on the Pipeline Trail. The fourth is the inverse of the Red Admiral: orange-winged with a black trailing edge. These are early hatchlings. The annual butterfly explosion, in which up to one-thousand butterflies can be seen on the road, is several weeks away. One regret that I have from the winter is that despite my searches, I was unable to locate any butterfly or moth cocoons hanging from trees. That is where the butterflies hibernate through the winter.

Near mile 0.4 where the Gambel’s oak forest spreads up the western canyon slope, the oak thicket hides small birds, but I can hear about five distinct calls. Only a robin’s call can be definitely identified. Along the stream, a startled thrush runs under the tangle of a bush’s roots. I jog down the Pipeline Trail. In April and May and after the oaks renew their leafs, smaller migrating song birds can be seen perching on the electrical power lines that parallel the trail, but today, I see none. Below Shark Fin Rock near trail mile 0.5, a mid-sized bird, screened by the trees, calls with a loud “chirp-cheep”. I cannot see it, but from the changes of its calls’ levels, I can tell that the bird is standing in place and rotating around, probably advertising for a mate.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on March 14th, 1854, he hears a large flock of song-sparrows in the trees. On March 14th, 1855, he sees sparrow tracks in the snow leading to blue curls, a plant that contains dried seeds.

The weather and increased ability to forecast flooding works against City residents’ tendency to forget extreme events. The National Weather Service, the National Soil Conservation Service and the U.S. Geological Survey maintain an extensive system of flood gauge monitors and a sophisticated national flood prediction system, the Advanced Hydrographic Prediction Service, the data from which is publicly available (U.S.G.S. 2017, NSCS 2017, NWS 2017b, 2017c). The NWS regularly publishes probability predictions of annual flooding whenever the snowpack is high (Salt Lake Tribune, April 29, 2011). For example, although 2017 has not resulted in flooding in City Creek, flooding in northern Utah towns like Tremonton fill the news.

When City Creek returns to flood its delta, the waters will find a much changed city. In the 2000s, when the North Temple shopping district was rebuilt at the cost of over $1 billion USD. Since 1983, the business district has seen construction of numerous large buildings on both sides or Main and State Streets, and pursuant with City policy, each has constructed many large underground parking lots. For example, between South Temple and 100 South and State and Main, the entire 10 acre block now contains a multi-level underground parking structure. The same is true between 200 South and 300 South between State and Main. The doors that close off entry to these underground cavities are simple thin roll-down affairs that will not keep flood water out. Although during the 1983 flood, sandbagging kept water out of the then only underground garage, when City Creek again floods the downtown, these underground lots will be susceptible to filling with water, and the economic cost of the next extreme flood – which still can overwhelm the post-1983 increased capacity of the storm water system – will be much higher.

March 9, 2017

March 9th

Filed under: Eastern Boxelder Bug, mile 1.2, Moon, Moth, Mule deer, Mule Deer, picnic site 7 — canopus56 @ 10:14 pm

It is enough. This is the Right [Natural] Place – First Peoples – Part VII

5:30 p.m. It is again warm today, but I do not get to the canyon until late, and even so, the parking lot is overflowing and their are thirty people in the first mile. It is the warmth of pre-spring that draws people. The canyon looks dreary, but perhaps that is because I am in a poor mood. Everything is waiting for more light. Plants on the side of the road look dirty; the leaf litter is slowly transforming into a paste that will foster this spring’s growth. Although it is dusk, a few Box Elder bugs are out and a moth flutters by. Below picnic site 7 on the west side of the road and across from the overhanging rock (Jan. 3rd), there is an intermittent spring whose small rivulet runs down an earth bank and along the road. I start up the bank to trace the rivulet back to its source, but then hear a branch crack behind me. Turning around, on south-east side of the canyon and across the stream, two mule deer are picking their way through the undergrowth. They see me turn and freeze. One of the deer stands with one foot held above the ground in mid-step. I wait for a minute and rather than stress them further, I decide to continue up the road and leave their forest home to them alone. At mile 1.1, a nearly full Moon hangs over Black Mountain, and this contrasts the earlier earlier afternoon Moon also seen over Black Mountain on March 7th. Coming back down canyon, I remark about the deer to a canyon regular – a man who daily walks an abused dog that he rescued from a shelter. He patiently was been working with the animal for a year, trying to reduce its aggressiveness. He reports that at dusk yesterday, there was a herd of fifty or sixty deer on the western slope above mile 1.2. Although he is known to me to be a reliable reporter, not prone to exaggeration, this is the type of report that needs to be witnessed directly. Fifty or sixty deer in one herd is more than I have ever seen or heard reported in the canyon, but his description does indicate that the deer have begun their spring move.

Occasionally, humanity does aspire to greatness and it tries to fix its missteps and injustices. For example, the Northern Ute Tribe received $272 million under the 1992 Central Utah Project as compensation for the United States’ failure to complete the Unitah portion of the multi-basin water project. In 2010, the State of Utah agreed to pay $33 million to the Navajo Nation related to the mismanagement of trust royalties for the 6,000 Navajos living in the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation. Conversely, no monies were actually paid to Northern Utes when they succeeded their lands to the United States under an 1868 Treaty with the United States.

In modern economics study, much is made of the economic miracle of the United States since the initial North American colonization and the exceptional peoples who created that miracle. A typical undergraduate first economics course is Heilbroner and Singer’s “The Economic Transformation of the America: 1600 to the Present”. Heilbroner and Singer’s economic narrative parallels the history of Euro-American Utah: hard-working, creative, persistent immigrants following free market principles took a raw valueless land and turned it into an economic powerhouse unparalleled in human history. The subtext message of the authors is that Americans are exceptional, and, similarly, the Mormons by their religious beliefs also feel themselves to be exceptional even among exceptional Americans. A simpler explanation of the Utah and United States economic miracle is that Euro-Americans were better capitalized. In settlement of the 1848 water with Mexico, the United States paid Mexico about $19.65 per square mile, or 3 cents an acre, for western lands including present day Utah. In present day Utah of the 84,899 square miles, or 54,335,360 acres, about 31 percent is held privately or by the State of Utah. After 1851, Utahans could buy homestead land at $1.25 per acre in 1850 currency, and in 1805, United States undeveloped land was valued at about $2.00 per acre. Thus, in 1850, future private and state lands were conservatively worth about 33,687,922 USD in 1850 currency or 740,198,508 USD in 2016 currency. That is about 148,039 USD for each of the 5,000 colonists of 1847. Viewing Utah as a “business venture”, starting a business with about 150,000 USD capitalization per shareholder is likely to be a successful prospect. Unknown to both the First Peoples and the Euro-American colonists was the value of Utah’s mineral wealth, which extracted and still extracts billions of dollars per year from the earth. In 2016, the value of minerals extracted from Bingham Canyon and the Great Salt Lake were about $3 billion USD. Had the Euro-Americans of 1847 and western United States settlers kept to their fair market and contract law principles and paid the First Peoples the fair value for their lands, the Utah Euro-American colonists would have started out their business venture with a per capita debt of 150,000 USD in 2016 currency. If the Utah colonists had been true to their professed beliefs, then the economic history of Utah would have been much different. The same economic reasoning applies to much of the Manifest Destiny expansion of the United States westward of Appalachia’s in the 1800s. This reasoning should not and does not mean to denigrate the struggle, hard-work and sweat equity that the Euro-Americans, my ancestors, put into transforming the nation. But context is important to understanding the past and present, and certainty in one’s exceptionalism is the enemy of democracy because it prevents a person from seeing issues from another’s perspective and thus from reaching compromise.

Exceptional abilities implies choice within a given context. By 1847, the Euro-American colonists were well into the era of the Indian Removal Act of 1930, that established the precedent of removing First Peoples from lands west of the Mississippi. Removal of First Peoples was their cultural and political policy of first choice. But there were choices. The 5,000 colonists of 1847-1850 could have chosen to remain confined to Salt Lake Valley; they could have slowed the rate of their migration; they could have chosen to expand first to the north; they could have chosen to engage in a reparations program of providing supplemental cattle to First Peoples during the winter. The options are endless, but at the forefront of the colonists Indian policy was seizing the most fertile land in the region in Utah, not Salt Lake, valley. In this regard, the colonists of 1847 were not exceptional, and their behavior differed little from previous Euro-American contact with First Peoples up to that time.

City Creek Canyon also exists in a larger context. Sometimes that context is climate (Feb. 7th), and sometimes that context is the economic and political needs of the Euro-Americans as they developed the surrounding region (Feb. 24th). It is this relationship between nature and human resource and infrastructure needs that modified the pre-colonization condition of City Creek Canyon into what is seen today. Here, again context and ability implies choices. While the canyon has been modified since 1847, by historical accident and by political design, much of its 1847 pre-colonization state remains.

What choices did the Euro-Americans make, and how has nature in City Creek Canyon been changed from its 1847 condition by those choices as compared to the six other Salt Lake Valley canyons?

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on March 9th, 1852, he notes that bluebirds arrive with the first warm wind (see March 7th here). March 9th, 1853, he opines that the first bark of the red squirrel is a sign of spring. On March 9th, 1854, he see a large flock of ducks and reflections of the landscape in water. On March 9th, 1855, he scares a rabbit from the brush.

October 19, 2016

October 19th

Watercress Foraging

1:00 p.m. During a post-storm cold but sunny day, four insects are on the road: a Praying mantis, immature Eastern Boxelder bugs, a Variegated Meadowhawk dragonfly, and an unidentified bee. The bee was possibly a domesticated honey bee with equal spaced black-dirty-yellow bands on its abdomen. While all trees have turned color, about fifteen percent of the trees along the road are now completely leafless.

Below picnic site 6, watercress beds line the north side of the road where a water seep runs year round. Watercress is also found there on the south side of the road in beds in the stream itself. The beds look mangy, but not because it is Fall and cold. Their tops are still uneven and chopped. In June, an extended family from one of the Southeast Asian countries came to the canyon over three weeks and harvested watercress in great leaf bags. It was a great family affair involving several generations – grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and young, playful, smiling grandchildren. Some of the elders were in traditional dress, and the children wore heavy metal tee shirts. It was unclear whether they were gleaning out of economic necessity or as cultural practice as they all piled into a large luxury SUV at the end of their gathering. But they took too much; the watercress beds have never fully recovered; and this is a metaphor for non-sustainable consumption that undercuts our confidence in modern post-industrial lifestyles.

According to local experts, and I am not one, there are many edible wild plants in the canyon in addition to the fruit tree cultivars. Pine needles and wild mint (Mentha arvensis) from the upper canyon can be used to make tea. Wild onion (Allum acuminatum Hook) and wild carrot (Lomatium dissectum) can be found in the spring. Blue elder berry bushes can be found along the upper canyon trail (Sept. 8th). With much labor, the bitterness of Gambel’s oak acorns can be leeched out, and the flour turned into pancakes. Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) and thistles can be boiled and then used as greens. Mountain dandelion (Agoseris glauca Raf.) greens can be added to salads. Some say even oak and maple leaves are edible. Barnes notes that the Ute indians ate these and also the root of arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) that grows profusely on the ridge between City Creek and the Avenues and on the west side of the ridge between City Creek and Ensign Peak (“Four Seasons”, Sept. 1st). The bulb of the state flower, the Sego Lily (Calochortus nuttalli) is edible, and the Sego can commonly be found on the high-slopes and ridges of either side of canyon during spring. But not being skilled in plant identification and since some edibles are easily confused with look-alike poisonous plants, I have not tried any of these.

With next spring’s growth, the watercress beds should become even thick mats again.

October 10, 2016

October 10th

A Stinky Supporting Cast

Daytime weather has warmed and this has arrested the turning of leaves. It is almost the end of insect season: a few flying moths and small insects are seen, the crickets have recovered to full song, but a few notable ground-dwelling insects, not previously mentioned, are all but gone due to the low overnight temperatures. These supporting characters are commonly seen on the road when walking up the first mile of the canyon.

Stink Beetles (Eleodes obscurus): Stink beetles are a large (2cm) black beetle with ridged wing plates. They are usually seen, as one is today, kneeling with their abdomens sticking up. Their defense is a smelly oil shot from the rear. At summer’s peak, up to fifteen of these stink bugs can be seen along the first mile.

Eastern Boxelder Bug (Boisea trivittata): In this city, mature boxelder bugs are a plague. In droves they infiltrate any small opening in a home to breed, but in the canyon, strangely, there are few mature boxelders can be found. Almost the entire population is made up of immatures, and this is probably the result of heavy predation. The immature boxelder is about 4mm long, has two prominent red back wings flanked by grey side bars, and a noticeable white spot at the apex of its abdomen. In the summer, up to five hundred small immature boxelder bugs can be found in the first mile of the canyon road. Two days ago, wherever an insect carcass fell, a small red, round rosettes of about fifty immature boxelder bugs would form to devour the meal.

Consperse Stink Bug (Euschistus conspersus): This is a small beetle with an armored back plate and small head. It is similar in appearance to the green stink bug, but the body is grey, not green. At summer’s peak, up to 100 can be found on the roadside of the first canyon mile.

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (Halyomorpha halys): The Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (BMSB) is a small beetle with camouflaged grey-brown back plates and an extended head. It is an invasive species. They are usually found on trees, picnic benches, and on leave litter along the road.

All of these stinky supporting cast members in the canyon’s ecology feed on insect carrion. When a dragonfly or cricket falters, its corpse will be covered with a immature boxelders and quickly removed. Since these carrion eaters no longer active between mile 1.1 and 1.4, there are two cricket carcasses on the road that have remained undisturbed for two days.

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