Podcasters offer updates on cougars, wolverines and the Great Salt Lake

Wednesday , January 10, 2018 - 5:00 AM

Adam Brewerton, a wildlife conservation biologist with the Utah Department of Wildlife Resources, hangs a deer leg in a tree in the Uinta Mountains as he sets a camera trap on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2016. Brewerton is setting the camera trap with the hopes of capturing footage of a wolverine. The large predator is extremely rare in Utah.

BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner

Adam Brewerton, a wildlife conservation biologist with the Utah Department of Wildlife Resources, hangs a deer leg in a tree in the Uinta Mountains as he sets a camera trap on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2016. Brewerton is setting the camera trap with the hopes of capturing footage of a wolverine. The large predator is extremely rare in Utah.

LEIA LARSEN, Standard-Examiner Staff

Reporter Leia Larsen and photographer Benjamin Zack launched “Out Standing in a Field,” a podcast about science and environment in Northern Utah, in September 2016.

With more than a year of episodes behind them, the two decided to track down the scientists from some of their favorite episodes. They provided field updates on mountain lions, cougars and the Great Salt Lake causeway breach. 

The transcript below includes a portion of the podcast. Listen to the whole thing and find more “Out Standing in a Field” episodes wherever you find your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Google Play, SoundCloud, Stitcher and TuneIn.

Follow “Out Standing in a Field” on Facebook for photos and notes from the field.

LARSEN: Hello everyone, Happy New Year.

ZACK: Welcome to Outstanding in a Field, the science and environment podcast for the Standard-Examiner in Ogden, Utah.

LARSEN: It’s hard to believe, but we have more than a year under our belts doing this podcast.

ZACK: It’s been a lot of fun, even with some sound and equipment malfunctions and a steep learning curve.

LARSEN: We started this podcast to show listeners what it’s like to be out in the field with some amazing scientists.

ZACK: We were up in the snowy Uinta Mountains and a desolate island on the Great Salt Lake and a driveway up in Idaho.

LARSEN: Since this is a science podcast, and because science is a constantly growing field, with researchers gathering new data or completing their studies and starting new ones, we thought we should do an update episode on all — or at least most — of the fields we’ve visited so far.

ZACK: Let’s start at the beginning.

LARSEN: Our first episode was about a topic that seems to constantly capture the imagination: the mountain lion.

ZACK: We didn’t actually go to the field to meet any mountain lions. Instead, we met with the scientist at the top of the field of mountain lion research, David Stoner.


LARSEN: True or false, mountain lions, cougars and pumas are the same thing?


LARSEN: True or false, there have been documented (human) deaths by cougars in Utah?

STONER: False. No one has been killed in the state of Utah by a mountain lion.

LARSEN: True or false, mountain lions mostly live in the mountains?

STONER: Ah, I can dispel a myth. I’ve always argued we should call them “foothill lions.”

LARSEN: What was your favorite thing you learned in that episode, Ben?

ZACK: I remember David talking about how he spends a lot of time in the field finding mountain lions, but he’s never stumbled across a mountain lion on his own.

LARSEN: Right, without the aid of dogs.

ZACK: Yeah. That drove home the point of how good at hiding they are.

LARSEN: I also enjoyed a story he told us about tracking mountain lions.


STONER: I was in the field a number of years ago working with my houndsmen. We had a female we wanted to put a radio collar on because, these things, their batteries die out.

This animal was in a small drainage and we had a very strong radio signal on her so we knew she was quite close. But radio telemetry is rather imprecise. It tells you a little bit, but not exactly where the animal is.

I was walking through the snow looking for tracks and I’m walking through the juniper trees and the visibility is somewhat limited. At one point, I felt the hair on the back of my neck start to rise and I had a very uneasy feeling. I couldn’t really explain it, it came out of nowhere.

I kept walking and it went away. Fifty yards later, I cut a fresh cougar track heading back the way I had just come. So I started following the track and, lo and behold, in 50 yards I spooked the animal. She had been sleeping under a juniper tree and she ran off when I got near. But when I looked at where she’d been bedded, I’d walked within 10 feet of her. And never even knew she was there.

So, again, I think it’s quite likely that they see us far more than we see them.

LARSEN: The next episode we wanted to re-cap was one of our most popular, and it was also about a furry and fierce critter, the wolverine.

Just as a reminder, we joined Division of Wildlife Resources biologist Adam Brewerton in the Uinta Mountains at the beginning of winter, end of fall, as he hung wildlife cameras in trees and a deer leg as bait.

ZACK: The state has been interested in wolverines after capturing a single animal by luck with another wildlife camera in 2014. But since then, they haven’t seen any.

LARSEN: At least not that one. In 2016, though, another one did turn up, unfortunately as road kill up by Bear Lake in Rich County.


LARSEN: So when you found one as road kill, were you bummed or were you excited?

BREWERTON: It was really mixed. It was really exciting because we’ve found two animals but that quickly went back down to one that’s still alive out there. So, yeah, it’s unfortunate it wound up dead. I should say she, because one of the good things about being able to collect the carcass is the ability to examine her. We were able to know it was a female, we were able to know it was about 2-3 years old. We were able to get measurements from it.

ZACK: Along with the physical tests, they were able to take some DNA samples as well. When we were last talking to Adam, those samples had been sent in but they hadn’t heard the results.

What they found out about this wolverine is she is likely from the central Idaho portion of the population with an 86 percent probability.

LARSEN: What happened? Did those cameras capture any wolverines? Ben went to our local division of wildlife office to chat with Adam Brewerton. Here’s what we found out.


ZACK: Did you see anything?

BREWERTON: Well, we saw stuff but we didn’t see wolverines. We got the more usual suspects — marten, weasels, coyotes, foxes … moose, elk, deer, the same suite of species we know occur up there.

ZACK: Going forward, any new questions or mysteries you’re trying to answer or are you just trying to figure out if they’re here or passing through?

BREWERTON: I think that’s going to be the biggest thing we’re trying to figure out. Because they’re so elusive, not finding them isn’t really conclusive to say we don’t have them. That’s really our only question and it’s a pretty big question. It’s going to take some time to really resolve.

LARSEN: Next up, a recap of the episode on the Great Salt Lake causeway breach.

ZACK: It’s worth revisiting the challenges the causeway has created.

LARSEN: When they first replaced the railroad trestle (in the 1950s) with this rock-filled causeway, there was a big change in salinity. Freshwater essentially reaches the lake from three rivers: the Weber, the Bear and the Jordan. Those all flow in on the south portion of the lake. The (causeway) runs over the north and west portion. When they filled it in with rock, they cut it off … there aren’t any rivers flowing in that north portion.

ZACK: Also, the causeway was built over a portion of the lakebed that’s soft. So almost from the get-go, they had problems with it sinking.


LARSEN: Do you think when that rock-filled causeway was put in the state and … the railroad company had any notion it would divide the lake so significantly?

Jim Van Leeuwen: I don’t think so. I’m sure they’ve got their answers, but at that time it was a rock causeway, it wasn’t a dirt, rock, fill, sand causeway like it is now. I’m sure the question was, would there still be exchange between the north and the south? “Oh, yeah, the causeway is fairly porous and we’ve got two culverts.” That causeway has been sinking in multiple places and they put more and more fill on top of it, so it’s not just rock.

It’s not too porous now.

LARSEN: As Jim Van Leeuwen (biologist with the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program) mentioned there, the causeway did have culverts that allowed water to flow north and south. But because the causeway keeps sinking, they had to close those in 2012 and 2013 due to structural concerns.

The plan was to re-open the causeway after they spent a couple years engineering it to make things safer and more stable.

ZACK: Back then, no one realized the lake would keep shrinking and shrinking and shrinking.

LARSEN: They were set to open the culverts again in 2016, but they had to delay because the lake was so low.

But Dec. 1, they had to breach due to pressure from the federal government and pressure from the minerals industries that operate up north.

Zack: We went out on the lake a few weeks after the breach to see how things looked.

One thing we didn’t realize at the time was that, technically speaking, the lake hit its record low in November 2016.

LARSEN: Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program manager John Luft told us at the time of the breach,

“If we get a good runoff year, or a few higher moisture years, it might be OK … But right now, overall, the lake is going to suffer due to the low elevations.”

Well, the good runoff year came. But this winter, things aren’t looking so good. Our snowpack in the Weber-Ogden river basin, for example, is 63 percent of normal. Last year at this time, it was at 123 percent.

Leia went to meet with John Luft again, a year and a month after the breach, to see how things look for the lake.


LUFT: We delayed that breach until December. Then we had a lot of snow and a fairly wet spring … which helped.

LARSEN: The timing couldn’t have been better, right?

LUFT: Everybody thought this runoff and moisture is going to bring the lake up. Well, it would have, had that remained closed, but with all that loss in the north arm, it basically flowed over there and you know, didn’t get much of an elevation increase.

LARSEN: In your opinion, was holding off (the breach) the right call?

LUFT: Oh yeah. It was a good call. The funny thing is, everybody expected the south arm to increase in salinity. I expected that. It actually decreased because all of that flow, we just didn’t get any north to south flow, so the salinity, it didn’t come back in. There was so much of a head difference. It took it a while to equilibrate.

ZACK: When the breach happened in December 2016, at the time the north arm of the lake was at 4,189 feet. Compare that to today, it’s gone up a full 4 feet. On the south arm, which was expected to go down once the breach happened, when it sat at 4,192 feet, it’s still gone up a little over a foot-and-a-half. While it fed (water) into the north arm, that big snow year really helped it out.

LARSEN: To date, the north arm and south arm are about a half a foot different in elevation.

ZACK: If there’s one huge takeaway from looking at the Great Salt Lake in general and talking with John Luft, it’s that one good (snow) year is nice, but it really does not change anything in the long-run. This is a long-term problem.