CRFS welcomes both UVU and non-UVU researchers. We encourage a variety of research and creative work linked to the Colorado Plateau. CRFS helps support relevant projects by UVU researchers through our competitive grants program funded by our endowment, the Bill J. and Margaret M. Pope Colorado Plateau Field Institute Fund.

Distribution and Habitat Use of Desert Bighorn Sheep in Capitol Reef National Park

Bighorn Sheep Hiking in a rocky gorge

Joe Ceradini (CRFS and Biology, UVU), Dr. Eric Domyan (Biology/ Biotechnology, UVU), Dr. Justin White (Geosciences, United States Air Force Academy, formerly UVU), William Sloan (Biologist, NPS), Dr. Morgan Wehtje (Biologist, NPS), and Sandy Borthwick (Biologist, NPS, retired) received a CRFS grant, as well as additional NPS funds, to study desert bighorn sheep in Capitol Reef National Park. Joe describes the project:

“CRFS, UVU, and the NPS are collaborating to better understand desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) distribution and habitat use in Capitol Reef National Park, which will inform management of this sensitive species. The research is based on motion-sensor cameras and genetic analysis of scat, which are non-invasive survey techniques that enable us to estimate the probability of sheep being present in different locations and using different habitats in the park. Five UVU students and one U.S. Air Force Academy student are also involved in the project. Dr. Eric Domyan’s students are conducting genetic lab work to identify the species for each scat sample and potentially estimate other genetic metrics such as diversity and relatedness between individuals. Dr. Justin White’s student is helping to manage the vast number of photos (around 1.5 million!) and will be working with Microsoft’s Artificial Intelligence for Earth to categorize images prior to analysis.

“Desert bighorn sheep populations declined sharply throughout the West from the late 1800s to mid-1900s mainly due to competition and disease transmission from domestic livestock, habitat loss, and unregulated hunting. Desert bighorn were extirpated (locally extinct) from Capitol Reef National Park by the 1940s, and disappeared from most of their range by the 1960s

“Desert bighorn were reintroduced to Capitol Reef National Park in the 1980s and 1990s from a persistent source population in Canyonlands National Park. While reintroductions in Capitol Reef and throughout the West have largely been successful, desert bighorn still face many threats, especially disease transmission from domestic livestock, habitat loss from development, and, more recently, disturbance from recreation. Within this complicated and fascinating context, continued research and monitoring are essential for detecting population and distribution changes over time, and for ensuring the persistence of this iconic species.”

Social Science Research: Who is going to Capitol Reef National Park and what are they doing there?

UVU faculty Dr. Maria Blevins (Communication), Dr. Meaghan McKasy (Communication), Dr. Leandra Hernandez (Communication), Dr. Michael Stevens (Biology), Scott Williams (Exercise Science & Outdoor Recreation), Dr. Betsy Lindley (Exercise Science & Outdoor Recreation), and Dr. Hilary Hungerford (Earth Science) are studying the motivations and demographics of Capitol Reef National Park visitors. Maria describes the research:

“In 2012, Utah launched the ‘Mighty Five’ tourism campaign in which the state of Utah advertised the wonders of its five national parks. It was a success, park visits increased from 6.3 million visitors in 2014 to 10 million in 2016 (Sundeen, 2020). Capitol Reef has not been immune to this growth. Historically, Capitol Reef has been one of the least-visited national parks of Utah’s ‘Mighty Five,’ but is now dealing with issues related to exponential growth in tourist numbers. The increase in visitor numbers affects how personnel manage trails and other resources as well as the experience visitors have while in the park.

“Employees at Capitol Reef National Park have expressed a need and desire to conduct social science research on the visitors coming to the park. This study aims to understand which factors have produced this astounding increase in visitation, specifically visitor motivations for visiting Capitol Reef National Park, as well as the type of experience they are seeking. A Capitol Reef social science team has been created to collaborate with the park; this team of interdisciplinary researchers represents the fields of Outdoor Recreation Management, Biology, Geography, and Communication. The project has been supported by a Presidential Research Fellowship and a grant from Capitol Reef Field Station.

“With the help of two classes (COMM 3115 and REC 4400), two student research assistants (Madison Anderson and Erin Kratzer), professors, and volunteers, this team has collected data over the course of 11 days during the spring and summer of 2021. A total of 685 short surveys and 145 longer surveys, which were sent in an email two weeks after initial contact, were collected. Additionally, qualitative data in the form of observation and informal interviews were collected. The research team will be meeting throughout the fall to provide a full report to the staff at Capitol Reef. This project is a beautiful example of engaged and applied scholarship.”

Student looking through eyeglass at lichens

Sleeping Rainbow Ranch Digital Preservation

Student talking to the National Park Superintendent Student talking to the Rainbow Ranch caretaker

UVU faculty Emily Hedrick (Digital Media), Amber Smith-Johnson (English & Literature), and Joel Bradford (Earth Science) received an NPS grant to digitally preserve the cultural history of Sleeping Rainbow Ranch in Pleasant Creek Valley, Capitol Reef National Park. This project included interviewing Chip Ward, a local author, and Park Superintendent Sue Fritzke. Amber describes the context and goals of the project:

“Capitol Reef National Park provides not only a stunning and dramatic backdrop of the American West; it also offers a unique glimpse into the intersections of cultures, peoples, and land uses that overlap one another in remarkable ways. One particularly rich story is of the Sleeping Rainbow Ranch, nestled between Capitol Reef Field Station and Pleasant Creek. While the hotel and homes associated with the ranch are long gone—the field station actually sits on the footprint where those buildings once were—the fences and outbuildings of the ranch can still be seen along the valley floor. Interestingly, though the ranch remains as a piece of Capitol Reef National Park history, there has been a current lack of educational material dedicated to it. Because of this gap in public knowledge regarding the Sleeping Rainbow Ranch, UVU faculty and students wanted to fill in the underrepresented narrative.

“Faculty members Emily Hedrick, Amber Smith-Johnson, and Joel Bradford assembled a team of students from Digital Media, English, and Earth Science to help bring the Sleeping Rainbow Ranch story to light. The team was awarded the NPS Preservation Technology and Training Grant, which allowed them to create a sort of virtual field trip with immersive tools such as 3-D augmented and virtual reality (VR) and photogrammetry. The team conducted interviews to help create a short documentary piece that will inform the viewers of the ranch’s history and its unique place in the national park. They also created a printed pamphlet for the visitor center. The pamphlet will be an attractive addition to the educational materials the park can offer for visitors and will feature fun, interactive elements as well. Included in the pamphlet’s historical facts and timelines will be augmented reality (AR) features that guests will be able to scan with their smartphones. Once scanned, guests can access even more information, including 3-D images, fun facts, and ranch history.

“Ultimately, however, the UVU team and NPS are hoping to share these videos and images with virtual visitors outside of the park as well. By making these assets available to K-12 and post-secondary education sites throughout Utah, viewers will be able to virtually walk the paths around the site as though they were on the dusty Pleasant Creek Road themselves. Viewers will also be able to virtually enter the buildings that still stand on the property and investigate the old walls of the outbuildings and rough-hewn fences. By using such newlyemerging, engaging technology, UVU and the NPS are hoping that together, a wider range of park visitors will be able to enjoy this piece of the past.”

Small Mammal Populations and Communities within Mexican Spotted Owl Foraging Habitat

Joe Ceradini (CRFS and Biology) received a UVU Engaged Learning grant and a CRFS grant to study small mammals in the park. Joe summarizes the research:

“In Capitol Reef National Park, and throughout canyon country, the Mexican spotted owl (Strix occidentalis lucida) primarily eats herbivorous and granivorous small mammals, such as woodrats (Neotoma spp.). So, factors that affect small mammals can also impact Mexican spotted owls. For example, through the alteration of plant communities, livestock trailing has been shown to influence small mammals, in some cases reducing small mammal diversity and abundance, which in turn could influence Mexican spotted owls. It is therefore important to assess the quality of Mexican spotted owl foraging habitat when livestock trailing is present.

“I worked with two UVU biology students, Hayden Kerr and Alisa Baadsgaard, to study small mammals within the Oak Creek and Pleasant Creek valleys in Capitol Reef National Park. The two valleys have similar ecology, hydrology, and geology in many respects, but cattle use is substantially higher in Oak Creek than in Pleasant Creek. This variation enabled a comparison of small mammals within riparian and upland habitats between valleys that differed in cattle use and disturbance. Results will inform park management decisions, such as management of cattle trailing within potential Mexican spotted owl foraging habitat.”

Student hiking up Oak Creek in Capitol Reef National Park
Student Collecting data


Research map of the United States

SRI International is an independent, non-profit research institute from Menlo Park, California. They are studying ionospheric waves using an all-sky camera they installed at CRFS. Dr. Asti Bhatt of SRI International writes:

“An all-sky camera imaging ionospheric airglow in the 630nm wavelength was installed at Capitol Reef Field Station in March, 2014 by a team from SRI International. This camera is part of a three camera network covering the U.S. west coast. The other two cameras are located at Hat Creek, California (operated by SRI) and at McDonald Observatory, Texas (operated by Boston University). The purpose of this network was to image large-scale processes in the earth’s ionosphere."

"Ionospheric disturbances imaged by the airglow imagers can have origins in lower atmospheric sources (such as thunderstorms) or in magnetospheric sources (such as auroral storms). These disturbances often travel large distances that may cause problems in communication/navigation systems. Understanding the coupling of energy and momentum between various atmospheric regions is an active area of research. By creating a large field-of-view to observe the ionospheric processes, we plan to observe the generation, propagation and dissipation of these waves and thereby gain an understanding of the source mechanism behind the disturbances. This will help us eventually calculate the energy transfer between the atmospheric regions."

"In the time that the Capitol Reef camera has been operational, we have observed wave activity spanning all three camera fields-of-view (see image). We see northeast to southwest propagating waves related to an electrodynamic instability in the ionosphere known widely as ‘Perkins instability.’"

"There was intense thunderstorm activity on July 31, August 17, and August 18, 2014 over northern Mexico extending up to Texas and other southern states in the United States. We observed waves propagating towards the northeast in the Capitol Reef imager field-of-view, and later connecting to phase fronts in the California imager field-of-view. We are currently working to publish these results as these are the first observations of ionospheric waves at 250 kilometers from thunderstorm origin.”


Jake Loveless, a biology major at UVU, conducted an independent research project in Capitol Reef National Park under the direction of Dr. Heath Ogden. Jake shares:

“This past summer I conducted a survey on the macroinvertebrate assemblages of both Pleasant Creek, and Sulphur Creek. The purpose of the study was to compare the populations of the two streams to see if the macroinvertebrate functional feeding groups differed between the two sites, and to asses relative water qualities using literature on pollution tolerance by taxa. Samples were taken on five separate collection trips using kick nets, and early data analysis has shown a significant difference in the populations of the two streams, but very similar water qualities. CRFS was an invaluable tool throughout the course of my research. CRFS provides excellent research opportunities, not only in facilities, but in funding, as my study was completely funded through a CRFS undergraduate research grant."