Grand Canyon, late April
“Larry fears the extinction of Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and perhaps other rare birds of the Southwest, unless major riparian restoration efforts are made soon…”
While Kristen Caldon boldly scales the heights and records the utter beauty and grace of this place, ecologist Larry Stevens, the older guide on our hike, continues to discover and speak eloquently for the Canyon’s smaller residents and habitats, from beetles to butterflies to springs. Whereas Kristen stops every hundred miles or so to re-tie her shoes, Larry stops every hundred yards or so to catch an insect, identify a plant, review the geology, or otherwise better understand and speak for the Canyon’s natural history. Larry is one of those rare polymaths who has mastered more disciplines than most of us can even name. He is an even rarer treasure in that he is a tireless advocate for the creatures and places he studies.
So our merry band, jointly led by two nearly opposite yet complementary guides, ventured up-and-cross-Canyon on challenging ground and rock but at an inquisitive pace. At intervals, Larry and Kristen would explain the complex geology to fellow trekkers Derek and Ed, and me, and I’d swear to retain at least the mnemonic: Know The Canyon History—See Rocks Made By Time, for the usual order of the rock layers from about 1.8 b.y.a. to 200 m.y.a. Geology shapes biology, and biology becomes geology, so Larry would point out plants particular to certain levels and aspects, and rocks formed of ancient organisms. He also showed us some of the Southwest’s rare old-growth riparian forests.
Here in the arid Colorado Plateau, on a river prone to massive floods and bound by vast cliffs, old-growth means not massive cottonwoods and willows such as belong on gentler western rivers, but sturdy gnarled mesquites and acacias, some perhaps 1,000 years old and occasionally a few red buds or hackberries or box elders mixed in. Larry reminded us that most animals depend for at least part of their lives on riparian and river resources, yet more than 90 percent of the Southwest’s riparian ecosystems have been damaged or destroyed, making remnant riparian forest a global priority for conservation.
Larry warned that the well-meaning but hasty effort to remove exotic tamarisk trees from Southwestern stream sides may have terrible consequences for songbirds. With most of their original habitat lost to development and agriculture, birds have taken up residence in tamarisk forests, which are now quickly succumbing to another exotic species, a tamarisk beetle that is killing the foreign trees much faster than natives can replace them. Larry fears the extinction of Southwestern Willow Flycatcher (pictured below) and perhaps other rare birds of the Southwest, unless major riparian restoration efforts are made soon.
Larry showed us other types of old growth or original vegetative communities too, including slopes that have never been grazed by livestock. By virtue of its remoteness and verticality, the Grand Canyon may have more area relatively unaffected by livestock (though mules have brought in exotic plants along trails) than any other place in the mostly grazed Southwest. Such intact plant communities are valuable in and of themselves of course, but also for conservation of diverse species and natural processes like pollination and climate change. Springs and streams un-trodden by livestock are also rare in the West, and Grand Canyon has many of them (as Larry is documenting through the Springs Stewardship Institute).
The Grand Canyon is a landscape of wonders and surprises and often they seem almost incongruous with the grander majesty of the place. Yet, fine and grand, yin and yang, go together. One afternoon Kristen caught sight of a large flock of whitish birds flying in perfect formation over the river. When we finally got near enough, Larry sent me bounding down to the shore with my binoculars and bird guide to resolve the mystery of their identity. Just as I keyed them out, the flock of seventy Franklin’s gulls took off from a big eddy and circled higher and higher within a Red wall amphitheater, looking angelic in one of the grandest cathedrals time hath created.
TrekWest Actions: Learn more about springs and spring stewardship at www.springstewardship.org. Become a member of Grand Canyon Wildlands Council www.grandcanyonwildlands.org/donate.html and help support their riparian restoration work in the Colorado River corridor in Glen Canyon.
For the Wild,
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ALL PHOTOS: © Kristen M. Caldon 2013