by Mary O'Brien, Utah Forests Program Director
Amid armed standoffs over cattle grazing and demands to hand over our nation’s public lands to states and counties, it’s important to remember that other lives depend on our public lands. Colorado artist Heidi Snyder helps us remember that with her 12 drawings of species and habitats we want to keep, and the ways weakly-regulated grazing animals can reduce or eliminate them (with fossil fuel extraction only exacerbating the problems).
With the help of Heidi’s faithful-to-nature drawings, we’ve been telling the stories of how livestock grazing can pose difficulties for hummingbirds and sage grouse, wolves and aspen, cutthroat trout and biological soil crusts, and bunchgrasses and harrier eggs. Let’s now turn to the rarity of one small habitat and one very small plant.
Protected within an unusually large fenced area, Lower Pinhook Spring in the La Sal Mountains is a world unto itself. Can you find the variegated meadowhawk (dragonfly), bluet (damselfly) and cabbage white butterfly?
Who doesn’t wonder at springs—those points at which unseen water suddenly flows out onto the surface of the land? A spring on our arid Colorado Plateau is a particularly rare and miraculous gift, most commonly coming in the form of clear, clean, cool water. A spring can start a creek, soak a meadow of bumblebee flowers, fill a pond behind a beaver dam, save a life (of almost any animal, including you), cool an overheating trout, create an oasis out of slickrock. It can be a nymph nursery for dragonflies, a mating place for boreal toads, a drinking spot for willow roots. One single spring can be the only home in the whole world for a particular species of springsnail or pupfish.
But a spring, if accessible to a herd of cattle, can also serve as an open water trough where the water may be fouled and the wet ground trampled into a muddy mess.
Perhaps a fence protects the spring, allowing it to water a small patch of meadow inside the fence before being captured and piped to a watering trough or cattle pond. If some water flows beyond the fence, though, it still may be trampled into a muddy mess.
At the watering trough itself, the cattle congregate and the land can become denuded of vegetation, or, if the trough overflows or leaks, become a muddy mess.
Or sometimes, just at the point where a spring would emerge into sunlight, all water is piped, with the special spring habitat sucked dry and effectively eliminated on behalf of cattle huddled around a watering trough downslope.
Springs and livestock, you see, don’t mix well. The luckiest of springs are in areas not grazed by livestock or too many elk or deer, with the next most fortunate springs sturdily fenced.
Any spring on the Colorado Plateau is a gift. On our public lands, it’s a gift for not only us but untold numbers of wildland species. Save a spring, and you save an incomparable, rare piece of our shared Colorado Plateau.
A pinyon pine cone looms above Last Chance Townsendia, while a pinyon pine needle rests near it. Backed up against a moss, the size of the plant becomes clear: tiny.
And now, a move from the rare and small to the rarer and tiny: a plant the size of a dime called, unfortunately fittingly, Last Chance Townsendia (Townsendia aprica). It took us an hour and a half of searching the floor of a particular pinyon-juniper stand we had been told about. Having only seen a photograph of the plant, artist Heidi Snyder and I were looking for all things smaller than a half an inch. It turns out a lot of interesting things beneath pinyon and juniper trees are about a half inch. When we found one apricot-colored Last Chance Townsendia, we felt like we had located a long lost friend. We searched for others of its kind for over an hour. We never found another.
Listed as “Threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, Last Chance Townsendia, a member of the sunflower family (Asteraceae), is known to remain in only three populations in three southern Utah counties. It finds its place in the highly alkaline, heavy silts of the seemingly barren gray shale slopes of the Mancos Formation. Tiny though Last Chance Townsendia is, the threats to its continued existence are large: coal mining, road developments, off-road vehicle use, and . . . trampling by cattle. Invasive species (often associated with grazing) are another threat, and on top of all that, the three last known populations appear to be declining for unknown reasons.
Somehow the diminutive size, extreme rarity, delicate apricot color, haunting common name, and numerous threats facing Last Chance Townsendia combine to remind us of the special role that public lands, the Endangered Species Act, and artists of all things tiny can play in saving even the most delicate parts of our Colorado Plateau.