Ecology of the Monument

Parashant is an ecosystem, a collection of plants and animals coexisting in time and space, interacting with one another and with their environment. Like all ecosystems, it is dynamic, open and ongoing, making for infinite complexity.

The word ecology, coined in 1866 from a Greek work meaning “study of the home,” is the examination of ecosystems. Ecology is the combination of the nonliving world such as rock, soil, moisture, temperature, and sunlight, and its association with living organisms. How organisms interact, how they adapt to survive, their processes, and where plants and animals live and why.

As ecosystems go, the monument is complex because it is a large area, over a million acres, and because it contains so many different environments and organisms. An amazing array of plants and animals embellish the monument’s three ecoregions: Mojave Desert, Great Basin, and Colorado Plateau. Unfortunately, it is not that simple because in between these major ecoregions are transition zones, areas where plants from both ecoregions intermingle. For instance, you might see a Joshua tree and pinion pine tree growing together. Within all of these areas are riparian corridors, small springs or seeps that provide a small setting with enough water to support a completely different set of plants and animals. Here, in the middle of a vast arid area you will find snails, amphibians, giant cottonwoods, and fragile ferns.

Plant diversity in these ecoregions range from Joshua tree forests at the lowest elevations (Mojave Desert ecoregion) to ponderosa pine forests on Mount Trumbull (Colorado Plateau ecoregion). In between sagebrush and pinyon-juniper woodlands cover the plateaus (Great Basin ecoregion). Ecological processes do not necessarily stop at “tidy” boundaries. As you view the monument, notice that plant communities form mosaics that reflect changes in not only temperature, but also light, elevation, moisture, and slope exposure.

These diverse plant communities create a habitat patchwork for native species. Among the variety of birds and mammals that live in the monument, 23 are considered rare, sensitive or endangered. These include the goshawk, spotted-western mastiff, and Townsend's big-eared bats, desert tortoise, and desert bighorn sheep. More than 50 species of plants are also on the rare, sensitive or endangered list. Parashant boundaries join with Grand Canyon National Park, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, and Bureau of Land Management lands. The immensity of this land mass allows for the restoration of native ecosystems and protects the habitat of large, wide-ranging predators including mountain lions and black bears.


Mojave Desert Ecoregion

The Mojave Desert (Mojave) and its transition zone to the Great Basin eco-region support a great variety of plants and animals. You would think that nothing could live in this extreme heat with so little water, but plants and animals thrive. The Mojave is the driest of the North American deserts receiving around 10 inches of rain in a good year but much less other years. Summer temperatures may get to 120 degrees Fahrenheit or more, but bring your coat in the winter because it is often below freezing at night.

The Mojave Desert region is rich with life, supporting many different species of plants including cacti, shrubs, parasitic plants, and a variety of wildflowers; only a few trees grow at seeps and springs. These plants have adapted special methods to help them survive temperature extremes, salty soils, and lack of water. They do this by either escaping drought, avoiding drought, or enduring drought.

Drought escapers grow rapidly to complete their life cycle during or following a rainy period. When the drought returns, they die but their offspring wait beneath the soil for the next rainy season. An example of a drought escaper is the Desert eriastrum.

Drought avoiders try to prevent the harmful affects. These plants have vegetative parts that become inactive during the dry season. They use a variety of adaptive measures such as loosing their leaves, having a leaf covering such as a waxy cuticle or hair as a moisture buffer, curling their leaves to reduce the exposed surface, or orienting their leaves so only the thin edges are exposed to the sun. To get moisture they have a shallow, extensive root system that takes advantage of even light showers.

Drought enduring plants are the masters of water economy. Their tissue allows them to carry out photosynthesis and maintain some growth even under extreme water stress. They use the same adaptive techniques as the “drought avoiders” combined with their ability to extract water from the soil.


Prior to the arrival of Europeans, this area received little disturbance; drought was the dominate environmental issue. The Mojave did not typically produce enough vegetation to carry fire more than a few yards so desert shrubs have not evolved to be fire-tolerant or fire-dependent. These slow growing, thin barked plants are adapted to survive extended drought, not the blistering heat of a fire. Livestock grazing, however, has disrupted the desert’s fragile environment. Alien grasses now dominate portions of the desert altering the fire system. These grasses dry early in the season providing fuel that allows fires to spread, killing native vegetation and promoting the growth of even more grass, intensifying the fire dilemma.

Wildlife of the Mojave Ecoregion

Gila Monsters (Heloderma suspectum)

Gila monsters are heavy-bodied lizards that can grow over a foot long. Their bead-like scales sport a gaudy pattern of black and pink, orange, or yellow that not only allows it to blend with its surroundings, but may also serve as a warning to potential predators. They live in brushy canyon bottoms and seek shelter in abandoned or self-dug burrows, woodrat nests, dense thickets, or under rocks. Although they are ground dwellers, they may occasionally climb looking for bird eggs or nestlings. Their favorite meals are ground-nesting birds (quail, morning doves), eggs of reptiles (including desert tortoise), lizards, insects, and carrion. They kill their prey by crushing it with powerful jaws and chewing their venom into the bite causing respiratory failure. A slow metabolic rate and stores of fat in its tick tail allow it to survive for long periods without feeding.

Bighorn Sheep (Ovis Canadensis)

The desert bighorn gets its name from the mature males’ massive curled horns. Females also have horns but they are much smaller. Quick and agile, they call the precarious rock ledges and rugged cliffs of the arid desert mountain ranges their home. They have a complex digestive system that enables them to obtain nutrients from dry, hard, abrasive plant material of poor quality that other animals avoid. When green vegetation is available, the sheep need little water, but as summer approaches, they move closer to water sources and reduce their water output by resting in caves or under rock overhangs during the day. Their lifespan is 10 to 15 years. Males (rams) weigh 140 to over 220 pounds, females (ewes) 75 to 130 pounds.

It is common to see prehistoric petroglyphs and pictographs of bighorn sheep because they were widespread throughout western North Americas and prized by native peoples of their meat, hides, and horns. Europeans settlements decimated the bighorn population by excessive hunting, introduction of diseases, competition with domestic and feral animals, and loss of habitat. By the 1920’s few remained. Bighorns have been successfully reintroduced to many of their former home areas throughout the Southwest.

Coyote (Canis Latrans) “Barking Dog”

If you have spent time outside on a desert evening, you can attest to the fact that the coyote is the most vocal mammal in North America. These intelligent animals have adapted their behavior and diet to fit every habitat in North America. They are canines - part of the dog family along with wolves and foxes. Desert coyotes weigh about half as much (20 pounds) as coyotes in cooler environments and instead of sporting a fluffy thick coat, they have pale, short, thin fur. Thin fur absorbs less heat and aids in dissipating excess heat while the pale color helps them blend into the desert landscape. Traveling at 25 to 30 miles an hour, (and a bit faster when sprinting after speedy prey) coyotes may journey many miles each night to hunt. A coyote will eat almost anything, animal or vegetable. Although its diet is mainly small rodents and rabbits, a ‘typical’ diet may contain up to 40% plant material. They also prey on deer fawns and cattle calves. Coyotes mate for life and maintain family territories where both parents will care for the four to seven pups that are born in late winter.

Gopher Snake (Pituophis melanoleucus)

This large (four to seven feet) snake is one of the most common snakes found throughout Arizona. People often kill them because the skin coloration and pattern looks similar to a rattlesnake and when threatened, they may coil, hiss loudly, and vibrate their tail, effectively imitating a rattlesnake. Feeding mostly during the day, adult snakes will even enter an animals’ burrow to get to their favorite meal, rodents. Younger gopher snakes eat birds, lizards and insects. Once they have trapped their prey, they suffocate it by constriction. Females lay up to 15 eggs in loose sand in April and May with young being about eight inches long at birth.

Mojave Rattlesnake (Crotalus scutulatus)

The Mojave Rattlesnake is probably the most dangerous rattlesnake species in North Americas Mojave Desert. They live in creosote bush country where they feed on small rodents, lizards, snakes, and birds. Their venom, which they use to immobilized prey and defend themselves, contains both neurotoxins and haemotoxins. Neurotoxins affect the nervous system and haemotoxins affect the bloodstream. Along their backs, the skin pattern has diamond shapes with white edges and a body color varying from green-gray to yellowish tones. It is not a snake to look for trouble, but has an excitable nature and will stand its ground when threatened. It is a snake better left alone! Be careful because you can also find sidewinders, speckled, black-tailed, and Great Basin rattlesnakes in the monument.

Side-Blotched Lizard (Uta stansbutiana stejnegeri)

This is one of the smallest, and most abundant lizards. Its name comes from the bluish or black side blotches behind its front legs – the drab body color blends with its surroundings. They usually live less than two years but maintain an abundant population by producing many young. They creep around searching for winged insects, then leap and snatch them before they fly. The side-blotch digs its own burrow, which is unusual for a lizard. Another unusual lizard behavior is that it is seen in pairs or family groups - it likes company.

Tarantula (Aphonopelma chalcodes)

These large, black, hairy spiders are so scary looking that people often believe the unfounded myths that they are dangerous or even deadly. They do have weak venom, but it is weaker than even a bee’s venom. They are actually quite gentle and only bite humans if they are harassed. The tarantula’s long legs grasp animals trapped in their web while fangs inject the venom to kill them. In combination with the venom, digestive fluid vomited onto the dead prey, dissolves the soft body parts. The tarantula then sucks out the tasty broth. Males live around ten years than die after they mate. Females, however, mate and produce young for several seasons and can live to be thirty years old. The female will lay up to 1,000 eggs. After several days in the burrow, the hatchlings emerge to make their way in the world.

Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii)

Desert tortoises have to make the most of its limited food and water resources to survive the harsh desert environment. Water-rich grasses, plants, and flowers provide both food and moisture. They also store water within their bodies in a specialized urinary bladder. When water is scarce, they depend upon this internal water reserve. Its scaly, tough, reptilian skin also protects against water loss. The tortoises’ sharp claws and strong legs dig deep burrows (up to 30 feet long) that allow them to escape the blistering heat and cold winters. The first five years are risky for the small soft-shelled young; they often fall prey to ravens, coyotes, roadrunners, and other predators. They reach maturity at about 15 years of age but may live to be over 50 years of age.

These gentle animals are on the Federal list of threatened species mainly due to human impacts, which include increased urban development that fragments and reduces habitat, disease, capturing, fire, shooting, livestock grazing, and crushing by vehicles. Federal laws now protect tortoises and their habitat. Recovery plans are currently being implemented and studies are underway to discover more about the tortoises’ life cycle and how to best manage it to ensure its long-term survival.

Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)

With a wingspan of six feet, the turkey vulture is one of North America’s largest birds. Its overall color is brown-black with adults sporting a featherless, red head, white bill and yellow feet; immature birds have a darker face. Their "bald" head is easy to keep clean and is characteristic of vultures and condors throughout the world. They are best known for their practice of feeding on dead animals, (carrion) which they locate with their keen sense of smell. They have a sophisticated immune system that protects them from disease associated with the decaying animals. In flight, they hold their wings at a V-angle, soaring in wide circles and tilting from side to side, rarely flapping their wings. The sun shining through the silver-gray flight feathers of the under wing make it easy to identify a turkey vulture in flight.

Plants of the Mojave Desert


Biological Crusts


Mojave Transition Zone

The Mojave transition zone lies between the Mojave Desert and the Great Basin ecosystems and contains vegetation types from both, but not the complete assemblage from either. Soil and vegetation vary widely within the transition, although, it more closely resembles the Mojave Desert overall.

A common plant in the transition area is blackbrush, which grows in shallow, sandy, gravelly, or clayey soils. These communities grow on the oldest, least disturbed sites and are associated with biological soil crusts of blue-greens. Blackbrush grows and reproduces very slowly so decades may pass with little noticeable change in an area. It protects soil from water and wind erosion, and promotes soil fertility. Deer and bighorn sheep use blackbrush for winter forage and it provides cover for small mammals and birds. Coyotes, kit foxes, and an occasional cougar hunt here. These benefits are lost when fire travels through blackbrush cover.


Prior to European contact, blackbrush stands were probably more extensive than they are today. In the mid-1900s, blackbrush was burned to encourage the growth of grass for livestock. These grasses aid the frequency and spread of fire preventing blackbrush from recovering its range. Fire usually kills blackbrush and it may take over 100 years to re-establish itself.


You might be surprised at the variety of fascinating and supremely adapted critters that call the Mojave their home – you have to look closely because the signs of animal life are subtle. Time of day, weather, and the season of the year determine which animals are active. A large percentage of desert animals are nocturnal or active only at night. This allows them to avoid both hot daytime temperatures and predators. Some nocturnal animals are bats, foxes, owls, cougar, skunks, and most desert rodents. Some animals are crepuscular, active at dawn and dusk. Diurnal animals, those active during the day, are the most dynamic because their periods of activity will change depending on the temperature and season.

Physical features that developed over many generations help desert animals obtain food, stay safe, build homes, endure extreme weather, and attract mates. For example, the kangaroo rat has no need to drink water because they can obtain all of their moisture from its food – seeds and foliage. In addition, most animals found in desert environments are small. This helps them find shelter, and prevents moisture loss.


Great Basin Ecoregion

Because Great Basin is the largest ecosystem within the monument, you will drive miles through a vast multi-hued green landscape of sage and a shrubby canopy of pinyon pine and Utah junipers (one-seed juniper found occasionally). Pinyon pines and junipers, (fondly nicknamed “P-J”) prefer the mountains and plateaus while the grass and shrubs cover the valleys.

These small trees that grow to no more than twenty or thirty feet tall commonly live 300 of 400 years, junipers sometimes even longer. While relaxing under the shade of one of these steadfast trees, you might ponder what has happened around it during its lifespan.

Pinyons and junipers are drought resistant trees that are the dominant woodland species of this life zone. The pinyon pine can survive in the driest environment of any conifer. Young pines grow under the protective care of a nurse plant, which helps to stabilize the frost heaving soil that can harm the seedlings’ fragile roots. Once germinated and established, they grow very slowly. Pinyon pines produce a delicious, rich seed that once provided a vital food source for prehistoric residents. Birds and animals relish these tasty nuts and these hungry critters are the means by which the seeds are dispersed.

Junipers have an extensive root system designed to capture surface water. Few species can compete with junipers, particularly because the roots of the juniper exert a chemical that inhibits the growth of other species. Sagebrush, under certain conditions, can manage to live for a while in areas of pinyon/juniper encroachment, but it will eventually die. Red brome [Link to Invasive Species knowledge center], an exotic annual grass, is one of the few species that is aggressive enough to compete with pinyon/juniper. Junipers also rely on birds and mammals to disperse their seeds, which are hidden inside a fleshy blue berry.

When food is scarce, mule deer graze the pinyon/juniper foliage and the protection offered by the dense understory gives shelter to mule deer, desert bighorn sheep, coyotes, and mountain lions. Reptiles also rely on this community - Great Basin rattlesnake, horned lizards, fence lizards, and whiptails. Many species of birds breed or nest in pinyon/juniper, but the screech owl, scrub jay, and gray vireo favor its protective branches.

The younger stands with trees no older than 100 years are encroaching into the sagebrush and grasslands because suppression of wildfires has disrupted the fire cycle and livestock grazing has tipped the competitive balance towards the trees, allowing intrusion. Suppression of wildfires has also allowed the older stands to become so dense that few other species can grow among them. Those few plants that survive are scattered shrubs, forbs, and small clumps of grass.

Sagebrush communities are the most widespread and considered the “typical” Great Basin plant community. Big sagebrush is the most common species but several species of sagebrush are present. One sagebrush species tends to dominate an area; for instance, if the soil is sandy the dominant species is sand sage.

The ecological health and resiliency of the Great Basin are in jeopardy. One could list numerous concerns and issues, but the most serious treat to ecosystem health may be the invasion of non-native plant species. Alien species such as cheatgrass “tectorum or rubens” and medusahead “Taeniatherum caput-medusae”aggressively compete with native perennials following wildfire, and then alter the wildfire cycle after achieving dominance, making it virtually impossible for native shrubs and grasses to recover. Wildfires were historically a natural process for maintaining ecosystem health, but fire suppression, timber harvest policies, and the introduction of cheatgrass and other non-native species have significantly altered ecosystem response to wildfires.

Wildlife of the Great Basin Ecoregion

Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemionus)

Mule deer are easily recognized - just look at their ears and you will understand where they get their name. These large ears move constantly and independently listening for danger, while the pastel, gray-buff body color helps them blend into the environment. When startled, they move in a series of stiff-legged jumps with all four feet hitting the ground together. This gait allows them to out-distance predators in rough terrain, and to see above thick brush. If necessary, they can completely reverse direction in a single bound, and for short periods run 45 miles per hour. When water is scarce, their keen sense of smell can locate underground water that they dig for with their large hooves. Staying inactive during the heat of the day helps conserve water and keeps their body temperature within limits while sweat glands and panting provide evaporative cooling. Mule deer move between various zones from the forest edges at higher elevations to the desert floor, depending on the season.

Black Tailed Jackrabbit (Lepus californicus)

The blacktailed jackrabbit is a large hare (five to eight pounds) with very long, black-tipped ears and long, powerful hind legs. Its coloration, gray with a black tail and white belly, help it blend with the surroundings. Jackrabbits’ ideal living conditions are open areas with grasses and forbs to eat and scattered shrubs to protect it from predators. Open country also allows them to use their speed, 35 miles per hour with 20-foot long leaps, to escape large predators and hawks, eagles and owls. They cope with high temperatures by dissipating heat through their large ears and by feeding at dawn and dusk. During the day, they relax in shallow depressions dug under shrubs or near clumps of grass.

Short-horned lizard (Phrynosoma douglassii)

Short stubby horns and single row of fringe scales on each side of the body helps identify the short-horned lizard. When cold weather approaches, they bury themselves in the sand and do not appear until spring. To raise their body temperature they bask in the sun flattened against a rock or on slanting soil, so their back is fully exposed. Once they are warm, they forage for their favorite food, ants, or look for ground-dwelling insects, spiders, sow bugs, or an occasional tick. They do not race after their food like many lizards, but poise over their potential meal and snatch it with a flick of their long, sticky tongue. When the ground temperature becomes too hot, they seek shade by partially concealing themselves under a shrub. In the evening, while it is still warm, they "dig in" for the night. If startled, they scamper away like a anxious mouse. They try to avoid invaders since their other defense mechanisms are limited - when caught, they may inflate their bodies by filling their lungs with air and twist their head in a futile attempt to scratch with their horns, and on occasion, they spurt blood from the corners of their eyes.

Great Basin Rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis lutosus)

The Great Basin rattlesnake is a subspecies of the western rattlesnake. Its narrow neck offsets the large triangular head showing a deep pit between the nostrils. The pit in the face detects infrared (heat) signals from potential prey and gives this group of snakes the common name "pit vipers". Of course, the most identifiable feature is the rattle at the end of the tail. The venomous Great Basin subspecies found in Parashant has less distinct markings on the head, and less prominent, irregularly shaped, light centered body blotches. Great Basin Rattlesnakes have a range of colors that varies among individuals. Notice how the snake in the picture blends with his surroundings. A rocky, dry region with sparse vegetation is their chosen home site. They eat mainly small mammals, but may also dine on birds and lizards. Hawks, such as the red-tailed hawk, is one of its only predators.

Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus)

The loggerhead shrike is a songbird that hunts like a small hawk. Closer inspection shows a heavy, hooked beak with a disproportionately large or “logger” head from which it gets its name. They prey on insects, mice, lizards, and small birds such as warblers and sparrows. The shrike does not have the sturdy, sharp-clawed feet like a hawk so, in order to control and kill its prey, it impales it on sharp objects such as thorns and barbed wire. This behavior has earned it the nickname of “butcher bird”. Loggerhead shrikes love open places - typically grasslands interspersed with scattered trees and shrubs that provide nesting and perching sites. In the past few years, the Loggerhead Shrike has aroused serious concern because of its declining numbers throughout its range, habitat loss being a major cause.

Cougar (Felis concolor)

The cougar is our American lion. They are at home from deserts to humid coastal forests and from sea level to 10,000-foot elevations. They are generally most abundant in areas with plentiful prey and adequate cover. Its tawny-color body overlaid with buff on its belly helps it blend with the landscape. It has a small head, small, rounded, black-tipped ears, and a long, black-tipped tail. From nose to end of the tail, adult males may be more than 8 feet long and weigh up to 200 pounds. Adult females can be 7 feet long and weigh 90 pounds. Mountain lions are solitary, territorial hunters, and unlike most cats, are active during the day. They eat ground squirrels, mice, rabbits, porcupines, deer, and other animals. Cougars often prey on sick, injured, and young animals, which help in sustaining a healthy environment for the remaining animals.

Western Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis)

Aptly named, this lizard enjoys sitting on prominent points, like fence posts, where it can sun itself, and watch for food and predators. Unfortunately, its love of high places also makes it easy prey for snakes, hawks, and predacious mammals. Kingsnakes and striped racers are particularly fond of fence lizards. When attacked, the lizard can drop its tail in hopes that the flopping end will distract the predator long enough for it to escape. This is a last ditch effort because losing its tail is very stressful for the lizard. Not only does it take energy for the lizard to re-grow a tail, but food (fat) stored in the tail is lost. Like many species of lizards, the fence lizard can change its coloration to match its background making it almost impossible to see until it moves. Since lizards are cold blooded, it has to regulate its body temperature by thermoregulation – moving in and out of the sun.


Colorado Plateau Ecoregion

As you walk through a stately ponderosa pine forest that thrives within the Colorado Plateau ecoregion, inhale deeply the sweet smell of vanilla and pine resin. Long needles clumped by threes, sway on limber branches, the breeze sending a soft rustling through the intense quiet. The orange-yellow bark flakes off in puzzle-piece shapes leaving a spongy pile of residue at the base of the tree, a perfect place for the busy-tailed squirrels to bury their winter’s food supply.

Much of the monument’s Colorado Plateau ecoregion is an area of volcanic origin containing basalt ledges, ponderosa pine forests, and pinyon-juniper woodlands. Within this area Mount Logan, and Mount Trumbull and other volcanic mountains are known as “Islands in the Sky” because they are at a relatively high elevation and rise above the surrounding area. The coolness of the locale and the availability of water provide an important habitat for migrating wildlife, especially neo-tropical migratory birds and a variety of other wildlife species. This beautiful area in the monument’s Uinkaret Mountains is part of the largest ponderosa pine forest in the world – a swath of trees that extends from west-central New Mexico into northern Arizona, cloaking plateaus, ridges, and canyons, and denoting the 7,000-foot elevation where it grows most comfortably.

The lands found within and surrounding Mount Logan and Mt. Trumbull constitute much of the central mass of the Uinkaret Mountains, a chain of dormant cinder cones, lava flows, and basalt-capped mesas displaying five different periods of volcanism. The older basalt flows lay atop foundational remnants of the Moenkopi Formation and small traces of the Chinle Formations. The resulting topography is one of high relief, rounded cones, steep slopes, abrupt rims, and several small areas of gentle, sloping terrain atop the basalt flows.

Ponderosa pine is a drought-tolerant, sun loving species that offers a cool and pleasant respite from the arid, lower lands that surround it. Old growth trees, some growing to 125 feet, stand tall and proud in the deep soil of the mountain tops, while others must persevere in gnarled and stunted form on lava flows or cinder fields.

The three, forested areas in the monument may be relic communities from a time when the climate was cooler and moister. During the height of the last glacial period, these three forest areas were probably connected. As the Wisconsin glaciation retreated over 10,000 years ago, the forest receded and split, isolating these remaining sections.

The Mt. Trumbull/Mt. Logan area is the largest area of ponderosa pine in the monument and contains the densest forest and probably the oldest trees, some up to 500 years old. Associated with ponderosa pine is Gambel oak and small clumps of quaking aspen, which grow near meadows. Other species include New Mexican locust and serviceberry. You may even see a few scattered ponderosa pines mingling with the pinyon-juniper community at lower elevations.

Little more than a century ago, the ponderosa pine forest looked very different than they do today. Grand, yellow-barked pines towered over an understory rich with grasses, shrubs, and wildflowers. Analysis of tree rings has shown that until 1863 low-intensity fires raced through every few summers, consuming the grasses, and ladder fuels such as shrubs and small trees. The lack of ladder fuels protected old growth trees because the fuel load was insufficient to propel the fire into the forest canopy. As a result, ground fires helped maintain open park-like stands. There are stories about Mormon pioneers driving their wagons though a forest of massive pine trees.

Land use practices of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries altered the forests; grazing removed the grasses and fine fuels that carried fire, logging removed large trees that were replaced over time by many smaller trees, and attempts to suppress fire allowed fuels that normally would have been removed on a regular basis to build up. The absence of fire has allowed tree density and fuel loads to increase, from an average of 28 trees per acre in the late 1800s to more than 500 trees per acre today.

The high fuel loads and increase in ladder fuels has changed the fire regime from high frequency, low intensity to one with a high likelihood of a high intensity, catastrophic fire. Ponderosa pine have thick bark that allows them to survive a low intensity ground fire, but if flames get up into the forest canopy it can kill many trees, drastically altering the forest community, damaging soils, and threatening human safety. What can be done?

Ecological restoration is a science-based program with an emphasis on restoring healthy conditions and promoting ecosystem functions by reestablishing natural processes such as fire to help maintains ecological integrity and species diversity. Healthy conditions mean fewer trees on the landscape, but it maintains a diverse mosaic of forest patches to accommodate all life within the system. The full effects of restoration, though, will take decades to see.


The forest provides wildlife habitat to many permanent and seasonal species. Some species of note are the nonnative residents, which include the bushy tailed, tassel-eared Kaibab squirrel, and the wily Merriam’s turkey. Native species include mule deer, coyotes, mountain lions, golden eagles, various hawks, and occasionally black bear. Some wildlife species use ponderosa pine in a way that it may have a detrimental affect on pine stands. For example, porcupines eat the inner bark of young ponderosas, stripping and killing terminal shoots. Kaibab squirrels consume the fresh green pine needles, and can weaken a tree. Mule deer will feed on new shoots and saplings when other forage is scarce. Lets take a closer look at some of these animals.

Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis)

Several plants and animals living in Parashant are considered “species of concern.” One such species, the northern goshawk is legendary for its ferocity, beauty, and amazing flight skills. While most hawks soar and dive over open meadows, streams, tundra, estuaries or coastlines, goshawks are more likely to be seen within forests, darting through the trees beneath the canopy. Over time, they have developed short, powerful wings and protective eye tufts which enable them to fly (mostly unscathed) through the forest understory and canopy in pursuit of songbirds and squirrels. Their long, rudder-like tails gives them an acrobatic ability to spin around trees and quickly dive under shrubs and brush.

Goshawks occur circumpolar in the northern hemisphere, but unfortunately, as mature and old growth forests become rarer, so do goshawks. Numerous scientific studies have documented lower or declining goshawk populations in heavily logged forests. Because the goshawk is both a top level predator and an ecological engineer, its decline contributes to the unraveling of forest ecosystems, stressing other forest dependent species. As a voracious predator of squirrels, jays, flickers, rabbits, and songbirds, goshawks play an important role in the forest food web. As builders of numerous, large nests, goshawks provide essential nesting opportunities for many species who cannot build their own nests. Each pair of goshawks builds and maintains between three and nine nests within their home range, but use and defends only one per year. While goshawk nests are especially important to sensitive or imperiled species such as Spotted Owls they are also used by Cooper's Hawks, Red-Tailed Hawks, Great Horned Owls, Short-eared Owls, squirrels, and many other species. As goshawks are displaced from their forest, their nests collapse from lack of maintenance and a precious wildlife habitat is lost.

Band-tailed Pigeon (Columba fasciata)

This large handsome pigeon inhabits the coastal woodlands of the Pacific coast and the mountains of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah. Despite its large size, the bird is surprisingly adept at feeding on berries and seeds in the tops of trees. Both sexes have an overall blue-gray appearance, and it is only after close inspection that one notices the male’s rosier breast and more iridescence on the nape of the neck. Adults are differentiated from their young by the adult’s chrome-yellow bills and feet, white crescent at the nape of the neck, and the dark gray band across the top of the tail that gives the bird its name.

Band-tails nest in mixed conifer forests, ponderosa pine forests, or in dense stands of evergreen oaks and pines between 4,500 and 9,100 feet elevation. As migratory birds, band-tails are usually only present in Arizona from late March thorough mid-October. Breeding generally takes place sometime in May and may continue through the summer, with some birds nesting twice and even three times in some years. The normal clutch is usually only one glossy white egg, so the species’ reproductive potential is low. As with other pigeons and doves, young are fed "crop milk" derived from sloughed-off, liquid filled cells that line the crops of both parents. After feeding on acorns and other fall mast crops, most Arizona band-tails migrate in flocks southward to the Sierra Madre Occidental in Mexico to spend the winter months. If you travel into the monument, you are most likely to see them at Nixon Springs at the base of Mount Trumbull.

Porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum)

The porcupine is the second largest of all rodents in North America. This heavyset (10 to 40 pounds), short-legged, slow moving, quill-bearing rodent spends much of its time in trees although it may rest during the day in hollow trees and logs, crevices in rocky bluffs or underground burrows.

Imposing quills are the most distinguishing characteristic of the porcupine. Long, yellowish guard hairs cover the front half of its body while up to 30,000 quills are interspersed among the dark, coarse guard hairs of the back and tail. Actually modified hairs, the black-tipped, yellowish quills are stiff, barbed spines about 3 inches long that are usually held flat against the porcupine's body. When threatened, the North American porcupine places his snout between his forelegs and spins around presenting its rear to the enemy. Contrary to popular belief, the porcupine does not throw its quills; if attacked, it drives its tail against the assailant and dozens of quills detach to remain embedded in the attacker. Barbs on the tip of the quills make them difficult to remove, since they point backwards.

Porcupines are strict vegetarians. In the spring, they feed on leaves, twigs and green plants. In winter, they chew through the outer bark of trees to eat the tender layer of tissue below. The two large, front gnawing teeth continue to grow as long as the porcupine lives. Their feeding habits can be fatal to a tree if it is girdled – the bark is removed completely around the trunk.

Porcupines breed in the fall or early winter. One or two young are born with soft quills but the quills harden within the hour. Babies begin eating solid food after two weeks, but they continue to nurse for 4 or 5 months.

Merriam's Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo merriami)

Merriam’s turkey are found throughout the Western United States primarily in the ponderosa pine forests of Colorado, New Mexico, and northern Arizona. If weather permits, they may winter in the ponderosa pine, but most often deep snow forces them to move to the pinyon pine-oak habitats at the interface with ponderosa pine. When spring arrives, they follow the snow melt up slope where breeding activity begins. Toms begin to gobble and form harems. Toms and hens are only together during the breeding season in late March to early June.

After mating, hens move into denser habitat at higher elevations to lay their 8 to 12 eggs in ground nests and incubate them for 28 days. The young are capable of moving from the nest soon after hatching. The hens and poults (young turkeys) spend the rest of the summer eating, loafing, and gaining weight. Wild turkeys are omnivores, eating a variety of plant and animal matter wherever and whenever available. Poults eat large quantities of insects and other animal matter to get needed protein for development. As turkeys age, plant matter becomes the primary food source with about 90 percent of the mature turkey’s diet including the green foliage of grasses, vines, forbs, acorns, buds, seeds and various fruits.

Kaibab Squirrel (Sciurus kaibabensis)

Kaibab squirrels, originally found only on the Kaibab Plateau are conspicuous with their tufts of long hair on the ears and white plumy tails. The body and tail are about equal in length – roughly 12 inches each. It is thought, that they represent a classic example of evolutionary change through geographic isolation. Durrant and Kelson who studied these squirrels in 1947 believed that the disappearance of the Wisconsin Ice Age over 10,000 years ago resulted in isolated stands of ponderosa pine. Because these animals are dependent on ponderosa pine environments, this separation resulted in isolated populations of Abert squirrels that over time went though a divergent evolutionary process.

Because the Kaibab squirrel was rare and the population localized, there was fear that a plague may extirpate them. For this reason in 1972, seven females and one male were transplanted to Mount Trumbull – now part of the monument. Subsequent squirrels were released over a period of five years resulting in a viable population.

They are expert at hiding among tree branches, but you might spot one if you sit quietly in the ponderosa forest and watch for movement in the branches of the trees. Evidence of the Kaibab squirrel includes piles of pinecones chewed to their cores and mounds of ponderosa twigs whose tender cambium layer is missing.

Kaibab squirrels do not hibernate and do not horde stores of food for winter. Their winter food is primarily the bark of twigs or ponderosa pine trees but also eat seeds from pinecones, weeds, mushrooms, and the fungi found in the layers of decomposing pine needles on the forest floor.
They are most active in the early morning and evening and. When excited or angry, they have a chuckling call, but as a rule, they are very quiet. They build their nests 30 to 40 feet up in the branches of a living tree. These nests are larger than a bushel basket and are built among the branches of living trees - pine twigs, needles, grasses, bark, or anything available are used. The young squirrels stay in these nests until two thirds grown.


Riparian Corridors

Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument has no natural creeks, rivers, or lakes, but if you take the time to explore, you may be lucky enough to chance upon one of its springs or seeps – a secret garden in the midst of an arid landscape. Just a little water is all it takes – wherever water flows there will be pockets of greenery that sustains unique collections of water requiring plants and animals. Mosses and maidenhair ferns may decorate the moist rocks, while cattails, and rushes sink their roots into the soft soil around the water’s source; listen to the soft breeze rustle the leaves of the cottonwoods and the whip-like branches of the willow. Take a good look; here is an opportunity to see the most in the shortest time - riparian areas are the smallest zone in number of acres but are among its most productive and important ecosystem with the greatest diversity of flora and fauna.

Springs and seeps occur in many sizes and shapes. Seeps are small springs that support small amounts of riparian vegetation that is adapted to drier conditions because they often dry on a regular basis. Springs may also be small but have larger aquatic habitats, dry less frequently, and support larger riparian zones with species that rely on readily available water. Each spring or seep has a unique combination of physical and chemical conditions that influence the plant and animal community. Healthy riparian systems filter and purify water, reduce sediment loads, enhance soil stability, and contribute to groundwater recharge and base flow. Significant riparian areas in the monument include Nixon, Tassi, Pakoon, Seven, and Cane Springs. Ranchers have supplemented natural water sources by building earthen reservoirs that collect rainwater. These “tanks,” built for livestock use, have also been a great benefit to wildlife – water is now more available than ever before.

Riparian areas are found within all ecozones on the monument, but they are especially vital as oasis in the Mojave Desert. Known as “biodiversity hotspots,” springs and seeps support aquatic species such as mollusks, crustaceans, aquatic insects, and fish, some like the speckled dace and the Grand Wash Springs snail are sensitive species. Their importance as wildlife habitat for birds, reptiles, and mammals has also become increasingly apparent. Quality riparian habitat has high structural diversity - dense undergrowth of tangled vegetation and debris at the base; mid -level vegetation that is less dense; and a comparatively open canopy provided by large trees. This diversity accommodates a variety of animal species.

Historically, fire was probably uncommon in this ecological zone. Fire frequency varied with drought cycles and spatially with the surrounding upland vegetation. Flammable fuel loads have increased dramatically in some riparian areas because native vegetation has been replaced by alien species like tamarisk, a highly flammable, invasive species. Tamarisk can recolonize rapidly following a fire, so each burn cycle will enhance its dominance of a site.

Human activities have altered the physical and biological condition of most riparian areas. Native peoples and settlers were the first to make changes. Native Americans impact was minimal, but settlers developed springs for homes and livestock by dredging, impounding, and piping water to distant locations, and allowed livestock to graze and trample riparian areas. (In some cases, the water supply has been completely removed and riparian flora and fauna is gone.) Use and management activities continue to adversely affect springs/seeps and have resulted in the decline of rare species. Springs that have been highly disturbed usually have less diverse riparian communities and are assaulted by non-native species such as tamarisk, Russian olive, rabbit foot, dallisgrass, cocklebur, thistles, and Bermuda grass. Non-native animals are also a problem; for example, the bullfrog both competes with and preys upon native amphibians. With few accessible wetland habitats, native species populations can be adversely affected in a short time. Management is challenged to respond to following issues: changes in natural fire intensity and frequency, alteration of hydrologic regimes, grazing management, forest and woodland management, habitat fragmentation, and shrub encroachment.

Another concern is that most monument springs and seeps, having been developed for livestock use, are held as private property even though they occur on federal land. In a number of cases, the legal ownership of the water is unclear. This has prompted the monument to do an inventory of all spring/seep areas and a title search. This information is essential in developing a management plan that will protect riparian areas from further damage.


Grand Wash springsnail (Pyrgulopsis bacchus)

These tiny but important residents are named after Bacchus, the Greek god of wine - referring to abundance of wild grapes near Grand Wash springs. The species was only recently described, and little is known of its biology. Why is it so important? Because it is known only to exist in four springs in NW Arizona, three of which are in the monument. Its head/foot is darkly pigmented, except for its tentacles and a central patch on either side, with a brownish oval shell that is only.0625 to.25 inches in diameter. If you were to see snails in a spring, you could not assume it is a Grand Wash spingsnail. Only experts under laboratory conditions can identify them. These snails prefer to live in the rocky substrates in clear, flowing water near the inlet of the spring. This behavior suggests that it feeds on periphyton, organisms that live attached to surfaces like rocks that are projecting from the water. Because this snail is considered a sensitive species, management must take steps to maintain a long-term viable spring system to support it.

Phainopepla (Phainopepla nitens)

The Phainopepla, (pronounced fay-no-PEP-la) whose name means "silky robe," is part of the silky flycatcher group. This tropical bird group is named because of the silky appearance of their feathers. The male has shiny black plumage with a jaunty crest, dark red eyes, and a long tail. The female is a bit smaller and is dark gray. Both have light colored or white patches under their wings that show only in flight. The Phainopepla has a unique relationship with its main food source, mistletoe berries. Mistletoe berries are dependent on the bird to distribute them. Once eaten, the seed portion of the berry passes through the phainopepla’s digesitve system and is attached to tree branches through the bird droppings. If berries are in short supply, they will eat insects usually by hawking, flying off one perch catching the insect and then returning to the same perch. The Phainopepla likes to perch on the tops of trees and bushes so it is easy for you to spot them. In early spring, they build a simple shallow nest in a mistletoe-bearing tree. Here they lay 2-4 speckled pale green eggs that both parents incubate for 14-15 day period. The babies grow quickly and fledge after only 19-20 days.)

Relict Leopard Frog (Rana onca)

Here is an example of why we must maintain healthy riparian areas. This amphibian may have lived in the monument historically, but does not live here now. The monument’s wetland areas however, are being assessed as possible introduction sites for this rare species. The relict leopard frog was first described in 1875. In later years, it was thought to have a relatively restricted range and although there was no scientific system in place to monitor their population, sketchy evidence suggested that populations declined. By 1950, when the last known specimens were collected, this species was considered to be extinct. Forty-one years later however, in 1991, the species was rediscovered at Lake Mead National Recreation Area, a National Park Service unit that borders the monument. The worldwide population of this species of frog is found only in approximately 5-6 very small springs, and probably numbers fewer than 1100 total individuals.

The relict leopard frog has less spotting on the back and head than other species of leopard frogs. Its color varies from light brown or tan to dark olive-brown and charcoal. Some individuals are green, most often on the head. In comparison with other leopard frog species, the relict leopard frog is small with proportionately short limbs. Its historic home was at springs, streams, and wetlands along major rivers. Today populations are restricted to perennial desert springs within the Virgin and Colorado River drainages. These areas may reflect available habitat rather than optimal habitat due to destruction, modification, or occupation by nonnative predators of historic territory. It is not known how many clutches female relict leopard frogs produce in one breeding season. The clusters of up to 250 eggs are attached to stems of living or dead vegetation near the bottom of shallow, low-velocity pools. Eggs hatch in about five to seven days and metamorphose in approximately 6.5 months after hatching. Relict leopard frogs’ color blends with their environment so to escape detection from predators they will remain motionless. If startled, they will escape into deep water or thick vegetation.

If suitable riparian areas are found within the monument, it will be a momentous opportunity for Parashant to contribute in the establishment of a healthy population of a species that was, for over 40 years, thought to be extinct.

Gambels Quail (Lophortyx gambelii)

These gregarious and talkative birds live in groups and fill the air with their soft whistles, clucks and metallic plinking sounds. In winter, they congregate into flocks and in summer, they split up into family-groups (coveys) of a dozen or so. There is nothing more heartwarming than seeing a quail family – dad, mom, and fuzzy chicks lined up in a row winding their way through the desert undergrowth. They graze across the desert floor munching on succulent plants, fruits, seeds, and insects. Quail prefer to stay on the ground and depend on their legs to keep them from becoming a meal. Even the tiny newly hatched chicks are ready to run. If running away is not enough, they will explode from the brush in random directions, surprising and confusing their pursuers. Quails’ coloration is striking with their heavily streaked, spotted, and striped plumage, and on their head, a teardrop shaped topknot. Their fancy feathers also help them blend into the complicated shadow patterns cast by desert shrubs and trees. In years of abundant summer and winter rains, quail may lay several dozen eggs; in dry years, none. Quail breeding times also depend on rainfall: In our Mojave Desert where rain most often falls in the winter, the quail breed in spring when succulent vegetation is plentiful.


Golden Columbine (Aguilegia chrysantha), Ranunculaceae (Buttercup) Family

In the wild, these freely blooming perennials are found in many habitats, from the understory beneath stands of mixed conifer and aspen groves, to springs and steams in desert environments where they form showy masses. A profusion of early, clear-yellow flowers with long spurs look like a mass of butterflies floating above the attractive and bright green, divided leaves. They have the appearance of delicacy, but are extremely tough and drought-tolerant when given protection from bright sun. The seed bearing fruits are shaped like “S” shaped capsules that split open to spill out a bounty of small black seeds.

There is sweet nectar at the bottom of the spurs that butterflies, long-tongued bees, and children relish. Although the flowers are safe to consume in small quantities, (they make a beautiful garnish for salads) the rest of the plant can be very toxic, especially the seeds and roots. Ancient European history indicates that columbine plants were used to treat a wide variety of ailments, from heart palpitations to boils and ulcers. Columbine is seldom used in modern herbalists, probably because of the risk of toxicity.

Monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatus DC), Scrophulariaceae (Figwort) Family

This large and varied genus of annual and perennial herbs is best remembered by its habitat and flower characteristics. Most perennial varieties grow in permanently moist soils, often sharing habitat with such plants as watercress and coltsfoot, and cattail. The habitats of these annual varieties are varied and range from wet bogs to dry desert soils. The blossoms of the monkeyflowers are often likened to the shape of a laughing monkey face although some imagination is required to see this resemblance. The yellow, red, or purple flowers flare at the mouth to form two upper lips and three lower lips. The alternate leaves range in shape from lance shaped to nearly round. Most monkeyflowers are small plants, often 1 to 2 inches tall, and seldom more than 12 inches high. One acception is Mimulus guttatus, which may grow to 30 inches.

The leaves and stems of this plant taste salty and were used by Native Americans as a flavor enhancer. Although the raw leaves tend to be bitter, cooking improves their flavor. The cool juice of monkyflower’s foliage makes it useful as a soothing poultice for minor burns and skin irritations.

Redrooted flatsedge (Cyperus erythrorhizos), Cyperaceae (flatsedge or cyperus) Family

Most of the bigger, perennial Cyperus species grow in somewhat deep water, while the smaller ones like the redrooted flatsedge grow in wet to moist soil. Cyperus look like sedges, but all the flowers and bracts come out from one place on the top, looking like a burst of green fireworks. They have small florets that are flattened along the two edges. Many of the cyperus look so similar that it takes a knowledgeable botanist to distinguish between them. Famous Cyperus species include C. papyrus, which is a huge Cyperus species that grows in Egypt and was used to make a type of paper for many thousands of years before our wood pulp paper was invented.

Narrow-leaf cattail (Typha angustifolia) and Southern cattail (Typha domingensis), Typhaceae (cattail) Family

These two species are more slender and delicate than common cattails found further north. The brown part containing the tiny seeds embedded in the fluff is usually one solid section. Typha domingensis looks similar except the brown flowering spike is longer, thinner, and often interrupted into two separate parts. A space between it and the pale yellowish part on the top contains the pollen while the common cattail doesn’t. The 40”-60” tall plants grow exclusively in water or saturated soil.

Cattails, according to Euell Gibbons, are the grocery stores of the wild plant world, with every part edible or useful at some point of the year. In the spring, young shoots from the rootstock can be peeled for use as a delicious steamed or stir-fried vegetable. The flavor resembles bamboo shoots used in Chinese cuisine. Young flower heads are excellent when prepared and consumed like corn-on-the-cob. All-purpose flour can be made from pollen that is scraped from the cattail head and dried, or from roots that have been peeled, boiled and dried.

Although seldom used by modern herbalists, folkloric practitioners made a poultice for burns and various skin irritations by boiling and crushing the roots. Native Ameriacans used the slightly astringent flower heads to relieve diarrhea and other digestive disorders. The spongy and soft seed fluff was used as an absorbent material for baby diapers. The stems and leaves provided cordage material.



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