Wasatch and Uinta montane forests

The Wasatch and Unita Montane Forests ecoregion is a distinct block of high montane habitat stretching from southeastern Idaho and extreme southwestern Wyoming to the isolated ranges of the Colorado Plateau in southern Utah. The ecoregion includes the Wasatch Range, a major north-south range; and the Unitas, one of a very few major east-west ranges.

  • Scientific Code
  • Ecoregion Category
  • Size
    16,000 square miles
  • Status
  • Habitats

Biological Distinctiveness
The dominant vegetation of the ecoregion is coniferous forests of varying composition. Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), Douglas-fir (Psuedotsuga menziesii), and Subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa), and Englemann spruce (Picea engelmanni) communities all exist in these mountains in various associations. Limber pine (Pinus flexilis) also occurs but is relatively limited (Mauk and Henderson 1984). A major distinguishing feature of this ecoregion is its large areas of Gambel oak (Quercus gambelii).

The Wasatch and Uinta Rockies differ climatically from other Rocky Mountain ecoregions in their relative aridity, a function of the extensive rain shadow cast by the Sierra Nevada 500 miles to the west. Moist air from the southwest or southeast does not penetrate this far. The higher peaks nevertheless receive a good deal of snow, which is notably consistently dry. This uniformly dry snowpack accounts for Utah's lack of snow avalanches in the mountains. Disturbances consist mainly of fire.

Conservation Status

Habitat Loss and Degradation
Most of the ecoregion has been impacted by grazing, logging, minining, and recreational use. Large predators are fully extirpated, and ungulates like bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis c.) are apparently in decline.

Remaining Blocks of Intact Habitat
The High Uinta Primitive Area represents a fairly intact block of high elevation habitat. The northern extension of the Wasatch supports large numbers of mule deer and is relatively intact. The Aquarius Plateau in the southeast portion of the ecoregion is an important remnant block of aspen, ponderosa pine, and spruce/fir forests at higher elevation.

Degree of Fragmentation
Motorized recreation and widespread livestock grazing have had major fragmentation effects on the ecoregion. Elk and deer appear to be little affected by these processes, but most of the native vegetation is fragmented by converted and degraded areas from intensive use.

Degree of Protection
Protection of the ecoregion overall is very poor. The High Uintas Primitive Area protects mainly high alpine habitats rather than a broad elevational gradient. Very little of this montane system is protected at all.

Types and Severity of Threats
Although some popular native fauna have survived and even thrived in the ecoregion, the outlook for its long-term viability is not optimistic. Increased motorized recreation in the mountains may compromise ungulate habitat security beyond a critical threshold if allowed to expand. Domestic livestock grazing continues unabated. The downhill ski industry poses some of the same threats here as it does in Colorado.

Suite of Priority Activities to Enhance Biodiversity Conservation

•Expansion of the protected area in the High Unitas to encompass a broader elevational gradient is a good place to start, as this remote mountain range still has high conservation potential.
•Maintaining representation of native vegetation types, particularly gambel oak, is an important consideration in designing a reserve network. Ultimately, this ecoregion could functionally connect with Greater Yellowstone, facilitating movement of carnivores south into the southern deserts. For this to occur, restoration of habitat quality and security would need to begin.
Conservation Partners

•Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance
Relationship to other classification schemes
The ecoregion boundary is taken from Omernik (1995). It approximates the boundaries of Bailey's M331E and M341C. Küchler classifies the area as 11, 14, 19, 21, and 31.

Prepared by: S. Primm