Rain here in Escalante, I have come to find, is a double edged sword. On one hand, the recent rains in southern Utah have been a boon for the plants and animals. Enormous populations of globemallow and yellow beeplant have been bursting out from the sand and clay, coloring entire hillsides, valleys, and mesas bright orange and yellow. Annuals are adding sprinklings of reds, purples, and blues among the grey-greens of vast flats near Escalante. Thus the palette of the monument has greatly expanded in the past few weeks with the arrival of several big storms; but these same life-giving rains have prevented travel to about 2/3 of our target populations on any given day. All but one of the main roads on the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument are unpaved, and the majority of these are only navigable with high clearance, 4 wheel drive vehicles. So it is that even in the best weather and road conditions, some populations are troublesome to get to, but with storms, they become wholly inaccessible for days on end.
As a result of extended weather delays, we were occasionally unable to monitor and collect during late May. On those days my co-intern and I lent our help to the wildlife biologists on the monument and collected data for hummingbird, bat, and lizard surveys.
Understanding the animal life in these ecosystems is crucial to understanding the plant communities themselves and their true value in restoration and resilience, so I have found these forays into wildlife biology to be enlightening. Each of the animal taxa being studied on the monument serves integral roles in pest management, pollination, food web stability, and climate change research, both locally and regionally. The hummingbird survey data are especially interesting because many of the species found on the monument migrate through annually from southern deserts and northern forests, thus giving us clues into what surrounding climates are like compared to our regional climate. The data being collected are helping to paint a picture of the temporal changes in migration patterns for each hummingbird species, as well as for the genus as a whole which, in turn, are showing researchers the real-world impacts of changing climatic trends.
Additionally, my co-intern and I have become particularly invested in the lizard surveys and have taken to catching lizards during seed collection and population monitoring trips, just for the sake of learning. There is no comprehensive list of herpological diversity on the two million square acre monument, and both Jessie and I have decided to help change this in whatever way possible. Herps represent important members of the food webs in these ecosystems, and I believe strongly that documenting biodiversity is crucial to any management strategies. Globally, herpological diversity is declining rapidly as species are being discovered, immediately listed as endangered, and then declared extinct with little more than a description and a name. While most of these tragedies are occurring to amphibians, which are naturally less common in such dry climes as Escalante, other herps are also eluding documentation and are thus at a unique risk of being lost. I don’t think that it is possible to overstate the importance of scientists and managers to know the biodiversity of their study sites, regardless of target organism, and I am thrilled that I am able to help gather data in the hope that the monument will soon gain insight into its herpological diversity and take steps to conserve the species here.
Despite the inclement weather, we have begun to collect seeds for two species of globemallow, three species of grass, and one species of mustard during the last two weeks. Rain is again preventing certain collections this week and may be knocking out our ripe seeds, but the rain is nonetheless a welcome visitor after such a dry winter and spring.
In the spirit of adventure,
Escalante Field Office, BLM
P.S. I’m building a theme with my titles because life is too short to not have a little intrigue every once in a while. If you can guess it, then I’ll send you an Escalante keepsake. I’m not joking. Hint: Mr Plant met an elf-friend and grew inspired. These titles are inspired by the resulting harmonious union.