M.L. Bean Museum Helps Preserve Biodiversity

Mojave Desert
In Utah’s southwestern corner, 36 miles west of Saint George, the Mojave Desert creates a rare diversity of life sustained by the Beaver Dam Wash, a stream that drains through the southwest corner of Utah and finally empties into the Virgin River in northwestern Arizona. A portion of this area, known as the Lytle Preserve, is owned by BYU and administered by the Monte L. Bean Life Science Museum. The preserve is matchless as far as the native landscape is concerned.

"People know that when they come to the preserve, they will see a truly unusual assemblage of plant and animal species."

Currently seven BYU professors are working at the preserve on research projects ranging from the long-term effects of fire to climate change. In addition, a group of researchers from the Max Planck Institute in Germany come to the preserve annually to conduct research, and every spring, a group of almost 100 BYU students come to the preserve for a three-day field trip. Frequently, the preserve has walk-in visitors, including hikers, campers, and nature enthusiasts. According to Professor Larry St. Clair, director of the M. L. Bean Life Science Museum, “People know that when they come to the preserve, they will see a truly unusual assemblage of plant and animal species.”

Just as the Lytle Preserve is rich in biodiversity, it is also rich in history. The first to homestead the Beaver Dam Wash was Utah pioneer Dudley Leavitt, whose daughter Hannah Leavitt Terry came to the Wash in 1888 with her then five children. Hannah was the fourth wife of Thomas Sirls Terry and moved to the Wash to escape federal officers who were actively hunting and arresting those practicing polygamy. Hannah lived at the Wash and raised her six children there, often alone, until 1912 when she finally left to care for her aging husband in Enterprise, Utah. 

After Hannah and her children left the Wash, the property changed hands a few times until 1985, when owner Talmage Lytle sold the property to the Nature Conservancy as part of an agreement with Brigham Young University to preserve the wildlife and history there. In 1986 BYU finalized the agreement with the Nature Conservancy and assumed responsibility for the ranch. Since then, the preserve has been open to students, researchers, and visitors.

The Beaver Dam Wash prior to the December 2010 flood The Beaver Dam Wash prior to the December 2010 flood.
Recently, however, the preserve has been less accessible to the public. Over the last five years, the preserve has experienced two “100-year” floods (or floods so destructive that they should, on average, occur only once every 100 years), the most recent occurring in December of 2010. “These floods are catastrophic,” said St. Clair. “It’s a solid wall of water. There are huge boulders in the Wash, and during these floods, you can hear the boulders bouncing down the stream. It’s terrifying.” In the 2010 flood, several historic buildings on the ranch were severely damaged.

“Putting the infrastructure back together will probably be a three-year project,” St. Clair estimates. Yet research at the preserve continues, and students and visitors are still able to enjoy the unique beauty and learning opportunities that the Lytle Preserve offers. As St. Clair explains, “It’s a remarkable place for faculty and students to study and research the biodiversity and ecosystem complexities of the Mojave Desert!”