The Midden: Fall 2003
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Beavers Found in Park
We have beavers in the park! There are seven beaver dams, ponds and one lodge along Strawberry Creek inside the park boundary. In order to verify beaver activity, resource management is trying to photograph the beavers at the main beaver pond. This may be a challenge since beavers are nocturnal animals. They build and repair their dams every evening, replacing damaged sticks and patting on more mud. Beavers are equipped with many adaptations that allow them to dive and remain comfortable underwater, making them even more elusive. Even their lodges are entered through the water. Beavers are considered to be a keystone species, since their existence shows that conditions are right for many other species to live nearby. Beaver ponds play several different roles, from helping forest succession to creating habitat for fish and amphibians. The presence of beavers leads to many interesting questions: Are beavers a native species to this area? Will the presence of beavers in Strawberry Creek help the recently introduced Bonneville cutthroat trout population? These questions will hopefully be answered in the near future.
Tracking Elk Reveals Surprises
It's been 16 months now since Rocky Mountain elk wearing radio telemetry transmitters appeared in Great Basin National Park. So far we have recorded 82 locations for these elk, providing us with information on the elk herd's home range, habitat use, population size, and population growth. This is all critical information needed to properly implement the White Pine County Elk Management Plan.
The elks' overall home range covers approximately 33,000 acres of the Weaver Creek, Strawberry Creek and west slope of the south Snake Range. The park comprises just 22 percent of their home range. This home range estimate only reflects the main herd found here, mostly cows, calves and yearlings. Bulls and some yearling cow elk tend to wander more and can cover extensive area. For example, this was a banner year for elk sightings. Elk, mostly bulls, were seen in every major drainage on the east side of the park. We even caught elk on film (see photo).
The most surprising information we have found is the almost exclusive use of pinyon, juniper and mahogany habitats. Of 82 locations obtained, 67 locations or 80 percent were found in or adjacent to pinyon and juniper or mahogany. The remaining locations were in mountain shrub or mixed conifer habitats. In all cases sagebrush and native bunchgrasses were either in the understory or nearby. This was expected in the winter, but not the summer when we thought they would use the higher elevation aspen and mountain meadows found in the park.
Obtaining the exact number of elk that range in the woodlands on the south Snake Range is a daunting task. Even with elk wearing radio telemetry transmitters, seeing every elk as they walk through a pinyon forest is impossible. Even if they cross an opening, elk tend to bunch together and that makes it difficult to get an accurate count. We are using the home range and seasonal distribution information we gather to develop a strategy to survey for a population estimate. In the meantime, the highest number we have counted in a single sighting was 74, and there were more! This number is certainly more than the 25 estimated to be here in 1999.
Whenever we see the elk we try to get a classification count. In other words we count them by cow, calf, and bull. By knowing the number of calves and cow elk we can gauge population growth. So far we have averaged 41 percent calves in our counts, which indicates excellent recruitment and a growing herd. By knowing the number of bulls and cows we can understand the impact of predation on the herd. So far, the numbers of bulls have averaged 25 percent of cows. This number indicates that hunting or any other mortality on bulls is not enough to negatively affect the herd. If bulls were 15 percent or less of the number of cows this would be considered detrimental for population health. Elk are definitely here to stay.
Fish Populations Increase in Baker and Lehman Creeks
During August 2003 fish populations were surveyed in Baker and Lehman Creeks with volunteer assistance from the Southern Nevada Chapter of Trout Unlimited (SNCTU). The surveys used backpack electrofishing equipment to perform three pass surveys. For each stream, a 100m section was blocked off with nets, and staff attempted to remove all the fish from that section by stunning them with an electrical current and netting them. Fish were then identified, measured, weighed, and returned to the stream at the end of the survey. The number of fish found in each 100m section were extrapolated to estimate the number of fish per mile.
A Closer Look at Marmots
Marmots! Threatened! Most people don't think much about yellow-bellied marmots. If they do it's usually because they are a pest. In fact, most states that marmots call home designate them as varmints with no legal protection. So, marmots were not really paid that much attention in Great Basin National Park. However, after three years of climbing and traversing the south Snake Range we have not seen another marmot outside of Baker or Lehman Creeks. Then a scientist came through and told us that a resurvey of all known marmot populations in Nevada found marmots may be extinct in three mountain ranges and severely reduced in two others! These events led us to take a closer look at marmots.
This past summer we spent time looking for and trying to determine how many marmots we had. We searched Baker Creek and Lehman Creek and areas where we have historical records or observations of marmots. All we found were the marmots in Baker Creek, about 12 individuals. They are apparently in two colonies, one near the Baker Creek campground and the other near the Baker Creek trailhead. Both colonies are using the road fill for burrow sites despite extensive rock talus nearby. Marmots like to burrow and sun themselves among large rocks and boulders, hence their nickname rockchucks. No other marmots or marmot signs (i.e., feces, burrows) were found in Lehman Creek or areas of historical records and observations. Finding no marmots in Lehman Creek was surprising because we know there were marmots there in 2002.
However, we learned that we only had a short time to look for them. Marmots spend over 80 percent of their time in a burrow and this includes hibernating! The marmots in Baker Creek first appeared the end of March and were last seen about the end of June. If they don't appear again until April 2004, that means they will have hibernated for nine months after being active for only three months!
So what is happening to the marmots? From marmot biology we know they prefer boulder fields or large rock talus slopes adjacent to meadows or shrub and grass uplands. Being near standing water helps too. The key seems to be lots of grass and forbs to gorge themselves on, and nearby rocks to escape predators and facilitate burrowing. Based on this, one possible reason for the marmot decline is that forests in the park, including pinyon and juniper and mixed conifer, have become denser and have expanded their distribution into shrub and grass uplands and even meadows. Marmots do not like conifer cover, especially when it begins to reduce the grass and forb understory. So several sites in Baker Creek and Lehman Creek, adjacent to the existing marmots, have been identified to remove the pinyon and juniper and restore marmot habitat.
News Caves Discovered
Great Basin National Park is filled with caves. Besides the well known Lehman Caves, the park has over 31 (or 32 depending on what you read) known wild caves. The park now has four more, found by the ridgewalking efforts of cave crew, Krupa Patel, Ryan Shurtz and myself, Shylo Johnson, over the last few months. These four caves are Rockfall Cave, Chamber Cave, High Hole, and Mystery Cave.
Each time a new cave is found, we hope that it will be a second Lehman--a large decorated cave. Of the four caves, we have already surveyed Rockfall Cave and know that it ends after 50ft. For the other three caves, each has a dark zone, but only one cave, Mystery Cave, appears to still extend beyond what we have seen. Chamber Cave was a large chamber roughly 40ft x 20ft x 30ft high and High Hole appeared to end after 30ft. Mystery Cave went back about 25ft before we reached unnatural blockage; stones had been stacked in the passageway. Additionally, we felt a cool breeze indicating passage beyond. A future endeavor will consist of surveying these new caves to learn if they extend beyond what we know, but most likely the search for the second Lehman will have to continue.
Rock Art in Great Basin National Park
There are seventeen known rock art sites within Great Basin National Park. Of these sites, nine are petroglyphs (rock engravings), seven are pictographs (rock paintings) and one has both petroglyphs and pictographs.
In order to make the paint, the mineral was ground into a fine powder and mixed with a binder. The type of binder varied from place to place depending upon availability. Types of binder included animal and vegetable oils, blood, and whites of eggs.
Applying the paint to the rock surface was done in several ways, including using frayed twigs, small bundles of stiff grass, pointed sticks, and fingers.
The main method used when making petroglyphs was pecking. This was done by either using a hammer stone, which created rough outlines with a shallow design, or the use of a stone chisel along with the hammer stone to create finer, more controlled lines. Scratching a design on the rock surface was also used. This created a very shallow design.
Now that you know the difference between pictographs and petroglyphs along with how they were made, you're probably asking yourself, "What do all those designs (lines, circles, zigzags, dots, animal and human-like figures) mean?" Good question. When it comes to the interpretation of rock art drawings, the only person who knows the full meaning behind the drawings (if there is a meaning) is the artist himself. Because of this, archeologists can only document the site with photos, drawings and descriptions.
Protection of Rock Art
So when hiking around Great Basin National Park, or another National Park, Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management land, and you come upon a rock art site, congratulations, you have found a bit of history. Hopefully the only thing you will take is pictures, so that the next person to come along will also be able to enjoy the history of the area.
Did You Know?
Cattle grazing was eliminated from Great Basin National Park in 1999. The South Snake Range is still home to 10-15 Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.