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updated: April 24, 2006

Canyonlands Research Station (CRS)

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 management process.

The Site

Map of CCERS areaCRS 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.

Climate graph 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.

Research Themes

CRS encompasses an array of environmental conditions that makes it ideal for research into ecosystem processes and community dynamics on the Colorado Plateau:

Elevational Gradients
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.

Substrate Gradients
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 exotic invasions.

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
Denver University
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