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September 28, 2009

Wild About Utah: Tales of the Packrat

One of the best storytellers in Utah's national parks is not a ranger, but the lowly packrat. Their stories of past plant communities are written in their middens. The midden is a heap of leaves, twigs, seeds and fruits the packrat discards outside its nest. Protected in a desert cave or rock crevice and preserved by the rat's own urine, this heap is a detailed and accurate time capsule of the past local flora.

Ken Cole with the US Geological Survey is a fluent translator of the packrat's stories. Ken and colleagues sampled old packrat nests around Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Capitol Reef National Park. By carbon-14 dating, the nest ages are known to span the last 10,000 years. As controls, they also collected nests from mesa tops inaccessible to livestock. Ken and colleagues then carefully translated these packrats' stories by identifying and counting the plant fragments in these fossil nests.

At both Capitol Reef and Glen Canyon, old packrat nests revealed pre-settlement plant communities that were rich in diverse grasses, wildflowers and shrubs. Then these floras changed. Beginning 150 years ago, vast herds of sheep and cattle tromped and chewed their way across the unfenced rangelands of Utah in numbers unimaginable today. We know that palatable plant species and those susceptible to trampling suffered declines, because they are absent from middens from that time period. Unpalatable shrubs multiplied. Despite curtailed grazing in subsequent decades at Capitol Reef and Glen Canyon, packrats show us that the flora still has not recovered. Like Aesop's fables, this cautionary lesson of the packrat's ecological tale remains clear and relevant today. We should all listen.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.


Text: Jim Cane, Bridgerland Audubon

Wild About Utah is a weekly nature series produced by Utah Public Radio in cooperation with Stokes Nature Center and Bridgerland Audubon Society. Archives of the program can be found at www.wildaboututah.org.

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