City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

July 28, 2017

July 16th Revised, Reposted

Bird dialects; Grasshoppers and Locusts

2:30 p.m. With the continuing heat, an inverted layer of polluted air continues to building in valley, but the pollution has not yet entered the canyon. Today, the canyon air is clear, but later in the summer, the inversion layer will rise in altitude. A small black and white “bee” hover next to the road, but on closer inspection, it is a fly – Sacken’s bee hunter (Laphria sackeni). I find a small stink-bug like insect on several plants. It is a 3mm dark grey diamond with a orange-yellow border. It is probably a member of the Bordered plant bug (Largidae family), but I can find no specific specie example in my guides. Another dead Grasshopper (Melanoplus sp.) is on the road, and the continuing seasonal heat removes other characters from late spring’s cast. Yellow sweet clover has lost its leaves and become dried green sticks. Pinacate beetles have not been seen for a week.

Fruits betray infrequent lower canyon plants. On the trail spur leading from the road up to the Pipeline Trail, there is a single lower-canyon example of a dwarf Mountain ash (Sorbus scopulina) with bright red-fruit. Near mile 0.2, one Western blue elderberry bush (Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea) sports deep blue fruit.

I have continued self-study on learning to read the bird soundscape of the canyon (May 6th), but I have become disillusioned with my reference recordings of bird songs. It is evident that the canyon’s birds use calls that not among my reference recordings, and I suspect between some unrelated species that the birds are imitating each other’s calls. I have followed another of the many Lazuli buntings in the lower canyon today, and they use a trill call that is not in my sample recordings. Like birds, the several species of grasshoppers that frequent Utah are difficult for amateurs to distinguish, because they are mostly are seen only during flight before they disappear into thick grass.

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Birds form regional dialects (Podos and Warren 2007, Luther and Baptista 2010). A consequence of this is that without amateurs building a large centralized body of recordings, no one reference audio will sufficient for a local area. Only long experience, in which visual observations can be paired with local dialectal calls, can make one a “wizard” of the local bird soundscape.

Grasshoppers are often confused by North American lay people, including myself, for a variety of insects, including katydids and locusts. The Mormon crickets (Anabrus simplex H.) of that religion’s 1848 “Miracle of the Gulls” (Nov. 30th) were katydids and not crickets. In addition to katydids and grasshopper outbreaks that continue to the present day, historically, Salt Lake City was also visited by many locust plagues. There are several species of grasshoppers in Utah. The principal kinds are Melanoplus confusus Scudder, Melanoplus packardii Scudder, Melanoplus sanguinipes Fabricius, Camnula pellucida Scudder, and Aulocara elliotti Thomas (Watson 2016).

Salt Lake City and Utah were one of many regions that were devastated by the Rocky Mountain Locust outbreaks of the nineteenth century. Between the 1855 and 1900, the Plains states of North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri, and the Intermountain States (Colorado, Wyoming, southeastern Idaho and Utah) were inundated with periodic plagues of this mega-pest locust. In one June 1875 stream seen crossing the Nebraska plains, a swarm of 3.5 trillion locusts were seen (Lockwood, 19-21), and on the shores of the Great Salt Lake, drifts six feet high and two miles long, or 1.5 million bushels, were reported by Orson Pratt (Lockwood, 10; Deseret News May 25, 1875). The volume of the Salt Lake 1855 locusts were sufficient to cover four and one-third of Salt Lake City’s ten acre blocks with a one foot layer, or about 507 Salt Lake City ten acre blocks, or 0.8 square miles, one-inch deep (id). While the exact population of Rocky Mountain Locusts at their peak is unknown, one carrying capacity estimate for the western and plains lands puts the maximum 1875 Rocky Mountain Locust population at 15 trillion insects (Lockwood, 163-164). In terms of biomass, the Rocky Mountain Locusts of 1875 weighed in at an estimated of 8.5 million tons, and this compared favorably to the estimated 11.5 million tons of the 45 million North American bison of that same time. Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri were particularly hard hit by the 1875 locust outbreak, and those states and the federal government had to reluctantly implement large scale relief programs to aid bankrupted and starving farmers who had moved to those states and taken up undeveloped farm lands under the Homestead Act (Lockwood, Chap. 5).

The crisis lead to a governors’ commission, the creation of the United States Entomological Commission headed by prominent entomologists Charles V. Riley, Cyrus Thomas, and Alpheus Spring Packard, Jr. to study the insects, and the Entomological Commission issuing several classic nineteenth century scientific reports (Riley 1877, Packard 1877, United States Entomological Commission 1878 and 1880). Figure 1 of the Commission’s 1878 First Report elegantly shows the migration patterns of the Rocky Mountain locusts from their permanent nesting zones somewhere in the foothills leading to Yellowstone National Park in northwestern Wyoming and their circular migrations west and south to Utah and north and east through the Great Plains. Key among the Commission’s findings were that the Rocky Mountain locusts had a permanent nesting zone and within that zone, they preferred a particular type of sandy soil in which to reproduce.

The impact of Rocky Mountain Locust invasions were also substantial in Salt Lake City and Utah. In May 26, 1875, Wilford Woodruff, church apostle and then president of the Deseret Agriculture and Manufacturing Society noted that significant locust “grasshopper” infestations occurred in Utah in 1855 and during each year from 1866 to 1872. The 1855 invasion was the worst. Packard reported that in 1855, about 75 percent of all food stuffs were devoured, and this required the Utah settlers to live on thistles, milkweed and roots (Packard, 603-604). Heber C. Kimball estimated that there was less than fifty acres of standing grain left in the Salt Lake Valley and that the desolation stretched from Box Elder county to Cedar City (Bitton, Davis, and Wilcox, 342-343). The 1855 outbreak was part of a larger outbreak that covered present day Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, parts of Texas, and the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains (Packard, 34). The 1855 outbreak was followed by one of the worst winters in Utah history, the winter of 1850. 1850 marked the end of the 1300-1850 Little Ice Age. In the 1850s, one Salt Lake child described dunes of dead locusts along the Great Salt Lake shoreline as high as houses (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints 1986). In June 1868, Alfred Cordon reported crossing a locust stream while traveling north of Salt Lake City for four miles, and in Tooele, an 1870 resident described the destruction of all of his crops (Bitton, Davis and Wilcox, 338).

As the Rocky Mountain Locust hordes passed, they would lay eggs in favorable sandy soils, such as those found in the foothills above Salt Lake City. In August 1879, Taylor Heninger and John Ivie of Sanpete County estimated that Rocky Mountain Locusts had laid 743,424,000 eggs on each acre (Bitton, Davis, and Wilcox, 344). On August 28th and 29th, 1878, the Entomological Commission’s Packard witnessed a few locusts hatching from the benches above Salt Lake City (e.g. including the present day Avenues foothills) for a radius of ten miles (Packard 1880 at Second Report, 1880, 69-70).

Through 1896, further outbreaks occurred, but the locust population continually diminished in size through the Plains and the Intermountain states (Bitton, Davis, and Wilcox, Table; United States Entomological Commission 1880). Without explanation, by the early 1900s, the Rocky Mountain Locusts disappeared, and by 1931, it was considered extinct (Lockwood, 128-136). That made the North American continent the only continent, excluding cold Antarctica, that is free of locusts. In 2012, a locust outbreak destroyed part of Russia’s wheat crop, resulting in that country halting wheat exports, and another Russian outbreak occurred in 2015. Curiously, since there were some many of the locusts, adequate specimens were not preserved in the United States’ academic insect collections.

Various theories arose between the early 1900s and the 1950s concerning why the Rocky Mountain Locusts became extinct (Lockwood, Chap. 10). Lockwood reviews why each was discarded in turn: The end of the Little Ice Age in 1890 and the decimation of the bison populations occurred after, not before the locust outbreaks. The decline of the rate of fires associated with the decline of Native American populations was rejected because Native Americans did not burn a sufficiently large part of the Great Plains. In another theory, the Rocky Mountain Locust (Melanopus spretus) in response to the planting of alfalfa by farmers phase transformed into another grasshopper that still exists today – the Migratory grasshopper (Melanopus sanguinipes). This was rejected because the number of alfalfa fields planted in the Great Plains was insufficient to deny the Rocky Mountain Locusts of their preferred food sources (id).

In order to obtain further evidence regarding this last theory, in the 1980s, Lockwood and colleagues searched glaciers in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana for Rocky Mountain Locusts that had been preserved. Eventually, frozen locusts were located in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains and at Knife Point Glacier in Wyoming. Subsequent taxonomic comparision confirmed that the Rocky Mountain Locust (Melanopus spretus) and Migratory grasshopper (Melanopus sanguinipes) are two distinct species (Lockwood, Chap.s 10 and 11). Genetic testing in part confirms that conclusion (Chapco and Litzenberger 2004).

Then what caused the extinction of the Rocky Mountain Locust – the mega-pest of the nineteenth century? Lockwood suggests that the permanent breeding zones of the Rocky Mountain Locust were similar to the Monarch butterfly (Lockwood, Chap. 13). The Monarch butterfly overwinters in a few small forest groves in California and Mexico. The Monarchs (of which I saw two of in City Creek Canyon on July 24th) could easily be made extinct by a few loggers armed with chain saws. The Rocky Mountain Locusts concentrate their favored breeding zones on sandy soils in foothills raised above stream banks. Lockwood suggests that a triumvirate of three human activities brought the end to the locusts. First, farmers in Wyoming or Montana flooded, as suggested by the Entomological Commission in 1880 (Second Report, 311-313, Utah irrigation practices), or farmed the relatively small permanent breeding refuges of the Rocky Mountain Locust. Farmers also planted alfalfa for cattle feed, a plant disfavored by the locusts. Second, ranchers released millions of cattle that quickly denuded sandy grasslands next to streams and canyon headwaters. Third, this led to cloud-burst flooding that washed out the breeding areas and-or covered breeding zones with layers of thick mud. Combined, these factors destroyed the Rocky Mountain Locusts permanent breeding refuges and led to their extinction.

These factors were also seen locally in the Salt Lake Valley. On their arrival, Euro-American colonists found a valley inundated with Rocky Mountain Locusts and kaytdids (March 6th). Their first tasks included forming a committee of extermination to kill much of the bird life in the valley that might eat agricultural crops and that incidentally eat locusts (March 6th). They then released some of the 4,500 cattle brought with the first 1848 settlers on both the valley floor and the foothills, and planted large tracks of grains on the valley floor. Next they began lumbering operations that denuded the upper canyons (March 13th and March 14th), and removal of the time resulted in cloudburst flooding (March 11th and 12th, July 7th) (id).

In modern Utah, outbreaks of less robust katydids and other grasshoppers still occur. On May 7, 2002, former Governor Micheal Leavitt declared a state of emergency in Utah due to an outbreak of Mormon crickets and other grasshoppers in which 3.3 million acres in Utah were infested (Ut. Exec. Order May, 7, 2002, Karrass 2001). Grasshoppers periodically infest up to 6 square miles in the Salt Lake valley, but their cousins, the Mormon cricket (Anabrus simplex H.), had their last 2 square mile outbreak in 2009 (id). Statewide, grasshoppers peaked in 2001 (1.4 million infested acres) and 2010 (approx. 800,000 acres) (Watson 2016, Karrass 2001). Acres infested by Mormon crickets crashed from 3 million in 2004 to only 10,000 in 2016 (Watson).In Salt Lake County, the last Mormon cricket infestation was about 1,300 acres in 2009 (Watson 2016). Given the rapid urbanization of the west half of the Salt Lake valley beginning in 2008, the katydids’ breeding ground on the valley floor has been further reduced, and thus, it is unlikely that they will return here. On July 16th and after their hatching, I saw four Mormon crickets in the trees around mile 0.5 in City Creek Canyon.

This does not mean that the ecological niche occupied by the Rocky Mountain Locust and the Mormon crickets remains empty. On July 6th, I estimated that in the foothills surrounding the north end of Salt Lake City – these are the same hills that Packard saw Rocky Mountain Locusts rise from in 1879 – there were 310,000,000 million House crickets (Acheta domestica) with a mass of 85 tons on the city’s northern foothills. Unlike the larger Utah grasshoppers and katydids, the House crickets do not invade the valley floor, and they are not perceived as a pest despite their numbers.

Mormons have a cultural tradition of storing one year’s worth of food against hard times. This practice has a thin doctrinal basis. There is an ambiguous reference in their texts directing members to “organize yourself; prepare every needful thing, and establish a house . . . ” (Smith, Doctrine and Covenants, 109:8), but a more direct religious source is Levicitus, Chapter 25:1-13, of the Christian Bible. In Levicitus, followers are enjoined to observe a fallow seventh sabbath year after six years of harvests. The fifty year after seventh sabbath years is to be a jubilee year in which debts are forgiven.

In present day Mormon country from Idaho to Arizona, selling and buying a year’s worth of dried disaster supplies is big business. Probably, this cultural practice is an echo of western colonists’ encounters with the now extinct Rocky Mountain Locust (Melanopus spretus). Numerous plague scale invasions of this locust visited Salt Lake City between 1855 and 1877.

The outbreak of 1855 was seven years after the 1848 “Miracle of the Gulls” katydid incident. On July 13, 1855, church apostle Heber C. Kimball drew the parallel between biblical injunctions in Leviticus to allow land to lay fallow every seven years and the need to store food stuffs to tide a believer over the seventh Sabbath year:

“How many times have you been told to store up your wheat against the hard times that are coming upon the nations of the earth? When we first came to the valley our President [Brigham Young] told us to lay up stores of all kinds of grain, that the earth might rest . . . This is the seventh year, did you ever think of it?” (quoted in Lockwood, 44-45).

After touring the devastation of the 1868 locust outbreak in the Salt Lake valley, Brigham Young in a sermon to the Mill Creek congregation returned to the need to keep a seventh sabbath year of provisions on hand as a hedge against calamity:

“We have had our fields laden with grain for years; and if we had been so disposed, our bins might have been filled to overflowing, and with seven years’ provisions on hand we might have disregarded the ravages of these insects, . . .” (quoted Bitton, Davis, and Wilcox, 354).

Thus, the Mormon practice of storing a year’s worth of food supplies is in part inspired by their encounter with the extinct Rocky Mountain Locust.

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On July 16th, 1946, the Salt Lake Telegram reported on the costs of recovery from an August 1945 cloudburst flood. The airport was wrecked and a flash flood down Perry’s Hollow ripped through the city cemetery and tombstones were swept onto N Street. The downtown flooded:

Two hours later [after the cloudburst] State St. was still blocked by the overflow from flooding City Creek. Boulders weighing 300 and 500 pounds were left along the way. Parked automobiles were carried for blocks. Tree branches and trash cans were left in four and five-foot drifts.

On July 16th, 1940, a young bicyclist lost control of his machine and was injured on crashing into a tree (Salt Lake Telegram). On July 16th, 1922, hundreds of young girls hiked up City Creek Canyon as part of a city parks recreation program (Salt Lake Telegram). On July 16th, 1916, the YMCA planned a hike up City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Telegram). On July 16th, 1891, District Court Judge Zane in Duncan v. E. R. Clute declared the City’s water main improvement district that developed the City Creek water system infrastructure to be unlawful and he suggested that the City Council should be impeached for implementing their plan (Deseret Evening News). On July 16th, 1882, Salt Lake City passed an ordinance establishing the Salt Lake City Waterworks for the development of water system infrastructure in the city and in City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Herald). The ordinance set a schedule of connection fees to City water mains (id).

June 23, 2017

June 21st

Growth Spurts

6:45 p.m. In the cool of the late evening, I jog towards Pleasant Valley at mile 1.2. A Lazuli bunting (Passerina amoena) perches near the gate. Near mile 0.3, a flash of bright yellow on the outside of a tree catches the eye. It is a Yellow warbler (Dendroica petechia). At mile 1.1, I mistake plaintive calls for raptor chicks, but it is only the squawking of a pair of Western scrub jays (Aphelocoma californica).

The summer-like heat turns flowering plants. The leaves of Wild carrots (Lomatium dissectum), a.k.a. Fernleaf biscuitroot, are browning, and their seeds are turning a light purple. Curly dock weeds (Rumex crispus) have turned a deep brown. I admire Curly dock. It grows, flowers, and dies over only for a few weeks in the spring, but then its rich brown color accents the canyon throughout the rest of the year. Only in the early spring, does it finally succumb to winter’s weather, and then in a few weeks, it begins to regrow. Even the seeds of yesterday’s Milkweed have turned from a light green to a subtle purple in a single day. Foxglove beardtongues (Penstemon digitalis) that have delicate bell-like flowers have deepened in color from white to streaked pink.

Other plants respond to this initial summer heat with a growth spurt. Starry solomon’s seal plants (Maianthemum stellatum) have reached almost two feet in height. At the seep below picnic site 6, watercress (Nasturtium officinale) has grown four inches in height in just a few days. Scouring rush horsetails (Equisetum hyemale) along the road stand erect and have also reached two feet in height. At lower Pleasant Valley field, Wild bunchgrass (Poa secunda) is two to two and one-half feet high. Heat drives this rush.

Hovering other the Pleasant Valley field, a fleet of twenty Common whitetail dragonflies dart back and forth and play tag in the evening breeze. Their miniature relatives, Circumpolar bluets (Enallagma cyanigerum) line the first mile roadside. Returning down-canyon, a Pinacate beetle (Tenebrionidae eleodes) is running down the road. This is the first time that I have seen one fast motion, and usually they standing with their abdomens pointed into the air and ready to launch a chemical spray on predators. When running, its oversized rear legs make its large black abdomen comically waive back and forth. Since cars are banned from the canyon today, many bicyclists streak by not heeding caution for speed.

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Per Thoreau’s “Journal” on June 21st, 1852, he notes that adder’s tongue, a fern, smells like snakes. He hears a cherry bird. He sees a field with snap-dragon and he notes that lupines have lost their blooms. He hears thunder when there are no clouds in the sky. He collects morning glories. On June 21st, 1854, he notes the many smells in the air, including may-flowers and cherry bark. He compares how a stream bank has grown from a low covering of brown in spring to a thicket of weeds in summer. He finds a small pond with two pout fish and a brood of small fry. He describes a sprout forest – a forest of small sprouts that grows from fallen trees. He sees wild roses. On June 21st, 1856, he sees night hawks, and on June 21st, 1860, he observes pine pollen covering the surface of water.

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On June 21st, 2000, Mayor Rocky Anderson held a press conference urging Congress to pass a bill that would designate a portion of offshore federal oil revenues to fund improvements in local parks like City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Tribune). On June 21st, 1995, Rotary Club members repainted benches at Rotary Park in City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Tribune). On June 21st, 1994, a 19 year-old man was robbed at knife point by his passenger after they drove to City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Tribune). On June 21st, 1934, Street Commissioner Harold B. Lee referred a proposal by former City Engineer S. Q. Cannon to employ road crews to widen City Creek Canyon Road to the Depression Federal Emergency Recovery Act Bureau (Salt Lake Telegram). On June 21st, 1912, City Parks Commissioner George D. Keyser proposed a circular scenic boulevard be created up City Creek, along 11th Avenue to Fort Douglas, then to Sugarhouse, and then returning to the City’s center (Salt Lake Tribune, Salt Lake Telegram). The route would be lined with trees (id). On June 21st, 1906, City Engineer Kelsey reported that 100 miles of sidewalks will be completed in the City this year and another 25 miles of roads will be paved or graveled (Salt Lake Telegram). A minor $1,000 project will construct a bridge in City Creek Canyon (id).

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