M341 Nevada-Utah Mountains Semidesert--Coniferous Forest--Alpine Meadow Province


Central Great Basin, Utah high plateaus, Tavaputs Plateau of the Colorado Plateau, 43,600 mi2 (112,900 km2,)


Bristlecone pine at timberline in Great Basin National Park, Nevada. Land-surface form.--This province covers the highest areas of the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau, including valleys that are 5,000 ft (1,500 m) in elevation. Although some valleys are closed, none contain perennial lakes. Streams are rare and few are permanent. Many linear mountain ranges rise steeply from the semiarid plains, reaching altitudes up to 13,000 ft (3,960 m). They are composed mostly of folded and faulted sedimentary rocks block faulted to produce basins and ranges. To the east, on the Colorado Plateau, the mountains are formed from high-elevation plateaus composed of dissected, horizontally layered rocks.

Bristlecone pine at timberline in Great Basin National Park, Nevada. (Photo: National Park Service.)

Climate.--This region has a high-altitude variation of the temperate desert climate, with a very pronounced drought season and a short humid season. Most precipitation falls in winter, despite a peak in August (see Appendix 2, climate diagram for Panguitch, Utah). Winters are long, and climate varies considerably with altitude. Average annual temperatures range from about 38F (3C) 50F (10C) in the valleys to 50F (10C) 38F (3C) on upper mountain slopes. Average annual precipitation ranges from 5 to 8 in (130 to 200 mm) in the valleys to 25 to 35 in (640 to 890 mm) at higher elevations. A considerable portion of winter precipitation is snow, and summer afternoon thunderstorms are common on the Colorado Plateau.

Vegetation.--Sagebrush dominates at lower elevations. Other important plants in the sagebrush belt are shadscale, fourwing saltbush, rubber rabbitbrush, spiny hopsage, and horsebrush. All tolerate alkali to varying degrees, essential to their survival on the poorly drained soils widespread in the region. Where salt concentrations are very high, even these shrubs are unable to grow; they are replaced by plant communities dominated by greasewood or saltgrass.

The woodland belt above the sagebrush zone is similar to the corresponding belt on the Colorado Plateau, with juniper and pinyon occupying lower mountain slopes. The belt is frequently interrupted as mountains give way to plains.

In the montane zone above the woodland belt, ponderosa pine generally occupies the lower and more exposed slopes and Douglas-fir the higher and more sheltered ones. Typical species of the subalpine belt are alpine fir and Engelmann spruce. Great Basin bristlecone pine, with some individuals more than 1,000 years old, occupies widely scattered peaks. Only a few mountains in this province rise high enough to support an alpine meadow belt.

Soils.--Aridisols dominate all basin and lowland areas; Mollisols and Alfisols are found at higher elevations in the mountains. Salt flats and playas without soil are extensive in the Great Basin.

Fauna.--Sagebrush shrublands provide ideal habitat for pronghorn antelope and whitetail prairie dog. Golden-mantled squirrels inhabit the region's ponderosa pine forests, and snowshoe hares along with red squirrels are found throughout the spruce-fir forests of Utah.

The sagebrush shrublands contain many species of birds, ranging from burrowing owls to such specialized species as sage sparrow and sage thrasher, both found in no other type of habitat. Various raptors prey on jackrabbits, including the American kestrel, ferruginous hawk, and golden eagle. The pinyon jay is typical of the pinyon-juniper forest, which also supports the plain titmouse and black-throated gray warbler, along with flocks of bushtits. Ponderosa pine forests contain the Steller's jay and dark-eyed junco.

Many reptiles can be found; collared lizards are common.