April 24, 2006
A new research site dedicated to the long-term
study of the ecosystems of the Colorado Plateau.
The Colorado Plateau is a rugged, remote aridland region
marked by a history of different land-use types and intensities. Unprecedented
popularity of this region has created a demand for scientific information
on which to base management and policy decisions. With the creation of
the Canyonlands Research Station (CRS), a consortium of federal
agencies, local governments, and regional universities have established
a research facility aimed at promoting long-term ecological research,
monitoring and assessment of the region. The primary objective of CRS
is to foster cooperation and collaboration between scientists and managers,
thus merging understanding of complex ecological processes and maintenance
of ecosystem integrity with the needs of people who depend on the land.
By conducting research at CRS, scientists find exceptional opportunities in the diverse and broad array of environmental
gradients that characterize the region. Researchers also gain from
communication with land managers and involvement in a science-based land
CRS features 400,000 ha available for long-term research (see map below).
At the center lies Dugout Ranch, owned by The Nature Conservancy and
surrounded by public lands. To the south and east, and at the top of
the elevational gradient, are the Abajo Mountains (Manti-LaSal National
Forest), which have historically been rangeland with limited private
logging operations. To the north and west, BLM administers canyons,
plains and drainages that drop to the Colorado River. This area has
received varying degrees of resource use (grazing, tourism, mining)
and preservation. Canyonlands National Park, to the west, acts as an
excellent baseline for comparison with adjoining lands. Both NPS and
BLM lands contain pristine areas that have received little, if any, livestock
or human use, and include grass, shrub, and tree-dominated communities
and riparian zones.
This is an erosional landscape, with as much as 25% of the area exposed
sandstone. Deep canyons, canyon walls of alternating erosion-resistant
benches and highly erodable slopes, and broad, flat benches that dip
at low angles are the dominant features.
The climate of CRS study area varies considerably with the range in elevation
and the rugged topography. Annual precipitation
ranges from 200 mm to over 750 mm. Winter precipitation may fall as
rain or snow, and is produced by frontal storms from the north and west.
Most summer precipitation is from southern thunderstorms; these events
are highly variable from year to year, and may account for 10 to 50%
of the annual total. Closed low-pressure systems are common in the spring
and fall, and account for significant amounts of the annual rainfall
in most years. Temperature also varies with topography. July is the
warmest month, with average temperatures from 31 to 38 ºC; January is
coldest, ranging from -12 to -0.5 ºC. The length of the growing season also decreases with
increasing elevation, and ranges from about 160 days along the river,
to less than 30 days on the top of the Abajo Mountains.
CRS is located primarily within a sedimentary environment, with an
igneous component present in the Abajo Mountains, at the headwaters of
the watershed. Sedimentary formations range in age from Pennsylvanian
to Creataceus. The ingeous rock consists of Tertiary granitic intrusions
in the form of igneous mountains. Structurally, the area forms the boundary
between the salt anticline and Monument Upwarp subsections of the Paradox
Basin section of the Colorado Plateau. The structure is fairly flat-lying,
with several areas of intense faulting and folding.
The soils in the region range from rocky strata terraces, alluvial fans,
glacial moraines and talus slopes to eolian deposits and alluvium derived
from sedimentary rock. Deep soils can be found on mountainsides, alluvial
fans, valley fills and mesas. Shallow soils and exposed sandstone cover
escarpments, rims, and desert benches. Undisturbed soils are covered
by cryptobiotic crusts, a collection of cyanobacteria, algae, lichens
and mosses, that stabilize soil against wind and water erosion, enhance
water infiltration, and fix atmospheric nitrogen.
With the 2000 m elevational gradient, most of the representative plant
communities of the Colorado Plateau are present within a short distance.
Plant communities range from lowland, alkaline flats dominated by greasewood
(Sarcobatus vermiculatus), Salt bush (Atriplex canescens) and Rabbitbrush
(Chrysothamnus nauseosus); to grassland steppes dominated by native bunchgrasses
such as Indian ricegrass (Oryzopsis hymenoides), riparian zones with
willow (Salix spp.) and cottonwood (Populus); upland sites covered by
blackbrush (Coleogyne ramosissima) and sagebrush (Artemesia spp.) shrub;
pinon-juniper woodland; and farmland. In the Abajo Mountains, plant
communities change to mountain scrub dominated by Gambel's oak (Quercus
gambelii) and Ponderosa Pine. Aspen and mixed conifer forests are topped
by subalpine fir and spruce at the highest elevations.
The Colorado Plateau is a region of overlap, where animals of the hot
deserts, Great Basin, Rocky Mountains and Great Plains converge. The
environmental heterogeneity of CRS provides habitat for diverse invertebrate
and vertebrate faunas. Opportunities for research are abundant and include
big-game issues, interactions between native animals and introduced
plants, and impacts of recreation on various groups. There is a need
for basic inventories of species and investigations into the roles of
various guilds and taxonomic groups in the ecosystem functioning of the region.
CRS encompasses an array of environmental conditions
that makes it ideal for research into ecosystem processes and community
dynamics on the Colorado Plateau:
CRS stretches from the Colorado River at 1150 m to the Abajo Mountains
at 3400 m, and features a range of climates on both the same and different
soil and bedrock substrates.
Land use/Disturbance Gradients
The site contains a broad spectrum of historical use, ranging from pristine
areas with little surface disturbance, to areas with over 100 years
of intensive grazing. In addition, varying degrees of mineral extraction,
recreational, pre-historic cultural, and other anthropogenic disturbances
are also present.
Shifting Climatic Regimes
This region is near the present boundary of the Arizona Monsoon. To
the west and north, the climate typically has a predominately winter
precipitation pattern, while to the east and south, the summer monsoon
season is more influential. Manipulations at CRS can mimic changes
in precipitation patterns as predicted by global climate change models.
Long-term research sites can be used to track shifts in the monsoonal
boundary, and test predictions of climate change. Packrat middens, fossil
lacustrine deposits, and tree rings in the area document former climatic
conditions and biological responses to changing climatic regimes.
Bedrock exposures include sandstones, siltstones and shales, with granitic
intrusions at higher elevations. Soils may vary considerably depending
on elevation, depositional processes and past history of use.
Exotic invasive plants
While both cheatgrass and tamarisk are common in this area, their presence
is patchy. This presents the opportunity to explore both patch and population
dynamics in the absence of disturbance, as well as factors controlling
Bureau of Land Management
National Park Service
USDA National Forest Service
The Nature Conservancy
United States Geological Survey (BRD, GD and WRD)
Utah State University
Universtiy of Utah
College of Southern Utah
College of Santa Fe
Brigham Young University
Environmental Protection Agency
Natural Resources Conservation Service
Fish and Wildlife Service
Canyonlands Field Institute
San Juan County
USGS Canyonlands Research Station
Southwest Biological Science Center
2290 S West Resource Blvd
Moab, UT 84532