#ColoradoRiver: Dog Island restoration update

McInnis Canyon National Recreation Area via the BLM

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Kelly Slivka):

[Kate] Graham is the assistant director for the Colorado Canyons Association, a nonprofit that works closely with the Bureau of Land Management to care for and protect the three National Conservation Areas skirting Grand Junction — Gunnison Gorge, Dominguez-Escalante and McInnis Canyons, the last of which is home to Dog Island.

With the help of an army of volunteers from the wide conservation network that operates in western Colorado, Graham, her co-workers and BLM officials have been attempting to restore Dog Island’s vegetation after a visitor from Breckenridge set off fireworks there two summers ago, in August of 2015, and burnt it to a crisp…

[Troy] Schnurr has been keeping track of the local stretch of the Colorado for 27 years, and he’s one of the people spearheading the Dog Island restoration efforts.

The island, a large, sand and stone bank a little over a half-mile long, sits about two-thirds of the way between the Loma Boat Launch, just northwest of Fruita, and Westwater, the first river access point across the border in Utah.

It’s a very popular river outpost, hosting a shady, roomy campground on its western side, and it’s now slowly starting to recover from the fire.

It’s not a barren wasteland but has greened up ­— yes, with fast-growing, weedy Russian knapweed but also with sage, salt grass and many other native and non-native plants.

And though most of the cottonwoods studding the island are now scorched skeletons, fresh foliage from sucker shoots have begun to poke up from around some of the burnt trunks — a sign that the fire didn’t completely fry the root systems…

But these little victories toward recovery belie the painstaking, time-consuming and unpredictable road of restoration.

Invaders

Invasive plant species famously excel at taking over landscapes after fires or other destruction, and knapweed and Canadian thistle reign on Dog Island, creating a sea of weeds in which young native sumac shrubs can hardly be seen, much less thrive.

“Ecologically, this is a pretty sick island,” Schnurr said.

More than the proliferation of weeds, Schnurr mourns the loss of cottonwoods, staple riverside habitat that stabilizes river banks and shelters wild animals — and recreators — from the elements.

Some of the cottonwoods on Dog Island were probably over a hundred years old, Schnurr said, but only took a moment to burn down the night of the fire.

“We’ll never see old cottonwoods like this again on this stretch in my lifetime,” he said, gazing at the bleached white trunks of the dead trees.

After the 2015 Dog Island fire was doused, Schnurr was one of the first people to survey the damage and begin clean-up.

He and other BLM officials, including Collin Ewing, who manages the region’s National Conservation Areas, brought in a crew from the Western Colorado Conservation Corps, an organization that recruits youth volunteers to help with service projects, and began to clear out fallen trees and burnt tamarisk, another invasive plant overwhelming many parts of Ruby Horsethief.

By the fall of 2016, Graham and the Colorado Canyons Association had secured funding through the Colorado Water Conservation Board to restore three areas in Ruby Horsethief, one of which was Dog Island.

The association worked with Ewing, Schnurr and others to replant the island’s native species, like sumac, supplied by the Upper Colorado Plant Center in Meeker, a nonprofit that specializes in revegetating disturbed environments with natural growth.

The group also continued to clear out dead tamarisk, and they trimmed back extraneous cottonwood growth to encourage the recovering trees to focus their energy on establishment.

The game-plan for Dog Island now, a year after the original restorative push and two years after the burn, is to treat invasive weeds with herbicide and wait for nature to take its course, Schnurr said. He said once the weeds die, the native plants should move in to replace them.

But there’s more hands-on work to be done elsewhere in the canyons. Dog Island isn’t the only target for Schnurr’s and Graham’s conservation and restoration efforts.

Along the 25-mile Ruby Horsethief stretch, the Colorado snakes through the McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area and borders the Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness, protected lands managed for use by the BLM.

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