Wasatch and Uinta montane forests

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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 North American east-west ranges.

This ecoregion is within the Nearctic Realm and is an element of the Temperate Coniferous Forests biome.

caption Source: World Wildlife Fund

Biological distinctiveness

caption Utah, USA (Photograph by John Morrison) 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. 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 considerable snowfall, which is notably consistently dry. This uniformly dry snowpack accounts for Utah's lack of snow avalanches in the mountains. Disturbance regimes consist chiefly of natural wildfire. There are a total of 304 vertebrate species known to the Wasatch and Unita montane forests.


A number of mammalian taxa are found in the Wasatch and Unita montane forests; among these are the Utah endemic Endangered Utah prairie dog (Cynomys parvidens); Bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis); Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana); Bobcat (Lynx rufus); Great Basin pocket mouse (Perognathus parvus); and Northern river otter (Lontra canadensis).


There are numerous bird species present in the ecoregion, including the Near Threatened Red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus); the Near Threatened Greater sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus); the Near Threatened Spotted owl (Strix occidentalis); and the Red crossbill (Loxia curvirostra).


Snake species occurring in the Wasatch and Unita Ranges are: Smooth green snake (Liochlorophis vernalis); Yellow-bellied racer (Coluber constrictor); Western rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis); Western terrestrial garter snake (Thamnophis elegans); Rubber boa (Charina bottae); Milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum); Sonoran Mountain kingsnake (Lampropeltis pyromelana); Ringneck snake (Diadophis punctatus); Common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis); Plateau lizard (Sceloporus undulatus); Western gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer). Other reptiles found in the ecoregion are the Short-horned lizard (Phrynosoma douglassii); the Western skink (Plestiodon skiltonianus);  the Western whiptail (Aspidoscelis tigris); and the Sagebrush lizard (Sceloporus graciosus).


There are exactly six anuranAn amphibian that has limbs but no tail (includes all frogs and toads) species present in the ecoregion, namely: the Great Basin spadefoot toad (Spea intermontana); Boreal chorus frog (Pseudacris maculata); Northern leopard frog (Lithobates pipiens); Woodhouse's toad (Anaxyrus woodhousii); Columbia spotted frog (Rana luteiventris); and Western toad (Anaxyrus boreas). Salamanders found in this ecoregion are represented by the single species: the Tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum).

Conservation status

caption Mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), United States (Photograph by Gerald and Buff Corsi, California Academy of Sciences & CalPhotos)

Habitat loss and degradation

Most of the ecoregion has been impacted by livestock overgrazing, logging, mining, and recreational use. Large predators are fully extirpated, and ungulates like Bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) are thought to be in decline.

Remaining blocks of intact habitat

The High Uinta Primitive Area represents a fairly intactThe condition of an ecological habitat being an undisturbed or natural environment 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 overgrazing 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 and overgrazing.

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.

Ecological 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 and California.

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 initial step, since this remote mountain range holds 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

  • Center for Biological Diversity
  • Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance

Relationship to other classification schemes

The ecoregion boundary is taken from Omernik. It approximates the boundaries of Bailey's M331E and M341C. Küchler classifies the area as 11, 14, 19, 21, and 31. This ecoregion has been assigned the ecocode NA0530 by the World Wildlife Fund.


  • L. Arnow, B. Albee and A. Wycoff. 1980. Flora of the Central Wasatch Front, Utah. University of Utah, Salt Lake City
  • P.L Gori and W.W. Hays (Eds.). 2000. Assessment of regional earthquake hazards and risk along the Wasatch Front, Utah [U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1500-K-R]. Reston, VA:  U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey.
  • William Lee Stokes. 1986. Geology of Utah, Utah Museum of Natural History, Salt Lake City.

Additional information on this ecoregion


Disclaimer: This article contains some information that was originally published by the World Wildlife Fund. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth have edited its content and added new information. The use of information from the World Wildlife Fund should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.







Fund, W., & Hogan, C. (2015). Wasatch and Uinta montane forests. Retrieved from


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