Challenges ahead for aspen forests — @AspenJournalism

Aspen’s namesake trees, the quaking aspen, acts as a keystone species that sustains hundreds of other plants and animals. Aspens are also under stress from drier conditions, increased temperatures and over-browsing by large herbivores. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Aspen Journalism (Elizabeth Stewart-Severy):

Just as new research shows that aspen forests are a fountain of biodiversity, Aspen’s namesake trees in the Roaring Fork River watershed are battling warming temperatures, drier conditions, climate disruption, and unchecked herds of deer and elk. Although local aspen forests are currently faring OK, they face serious challenges.

There are a few small aspen groves in Pitkin County’s Sky Mountain Park, tucked in valleys where there’s more moisture than what the surrounding oak brush needs— and Elise Osenga, a researcher at the Aspen Global Change Institute, keeps a close eye on these groves. Osenga leads a program that monitors soil moisture as part of efforts to better understand climate conditions in the Roaring Fork River watershed. Two of the monitoring stations — one at Sky Mountain and the other at North Star Nature Preserve — are in aspen groves.

“We are interested in seeing,” Osenga said, “if soils are consistently drier over time, are the aspen able to survive?”

There is not yet a long history of local soil conditions, but Osenga recently completed an assessment of the health of aspens near the two research stations.

“The good news of what we found is we didn’t actually find many dead trees at this point,” she said. But Osenga noted that aspens can die off in sustained droughts or even after just one or two really dry years. Additionally, as temperatures rise with a changing climate, the rain that does fall evaporates more quickly, further drying out soils.

Elise Osenga, a researcher with the Aspen Global Change Institute, walks among the aspens on the Airline Trail in Pitkin County’s Sky Mountain Park. She heads up a program to monitor soil moisture and climate conditions. Photo credit: Elizabeth Stewart-Severy/Aspen Journalism

Aspens thrive on disruption

Other local experts have found that there are local aspen groves that are struggling.

“It’s really those south-facing, dry slopes where the aspen decline is pretty evident,” said Adam McCurdy, forest programs director at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.

He pointed to groves near the radio tower on the Sunnyside Trail and up Castle Creek near the Toklat Gallery. Throughout the West and particularly in southwest Colorado, aspen trees on south- and southwest-facing slopes at low elevations are declining.

But overall, the local forests are faring pretty well, McCurdy said. In fact, aspens thrive on disruptions.

Dry conditions can mean increased risk of wildfire and bark-beetle infestations in evergreens, which thin forests and create openings for aspens to reproduce.

In the mountains around Aspen, avalanches have cleared paths for aspen trees to peek through evergreen forests, creating landscape-level diversity that benefits the local ecosystem.

“This really serves to break up the large stretches of what would otherwise be just spruce-fir forests and makes our forests more resilient to beetles and fire and all sorts of other disturbance,” McCurdy said.

Young aspen trees with massive leaves poke up through avalanche wreckage in Maroon Creek Valley in the summer of 2019. Aspens take advantage of sunlight to grow after disruptions like avalanches, wildfire or beetle outbreaks. Photo credit: Elizabeth Stewart-Severy/Aspen Journalism

Sunlight and moisture bring diverse life

Young aspens are already taking root in the paths cleared by last spring’s historic avalanche cycle — and creating space for all kinds of forest life.

Quaking aspen leaves let sunlight through the canopy, and the deep, rich soils under aspen communities hold more moisture than those in conifer forests. Such a combination of moisture and sunlight is the magic ticket for diverse life.

“Under aspen communities, there might be up to a hundred different plant species, and then some people have made tabulations of 50, 60 or more animals using aspen on a daily basis,” said Paul Rogers, director of Western Aspen Alliance, which coordinates research and management of aspen ecosystems across western North America.

A bear walks through an aspen grove in Snowmass Village this past fall. Bears are among dozens of animal species who use aspen communities. Photo credit: Elizabeth Stewart-Severy/Aspen Journalism

Research shows biodiversity benefits of aspen forests

Rogers co-authored a recent review of aspen research that contends that conservation of aspen ecosystems can benefit global biodiversity. Rogers and more than a dozen fellow researchers argue for a “mega-conservation” strategy: By sustaining the keystone aspen forests, a wide range of species would also be protected.

But, in addition to drier soils, aspen forests across the world are under stress from human activities such as mining, logging and urban development — as well as from some of the very wildlife they help support. Young trees are particularly nutritious and attractive to elk and deer, and herds sometimes stay in one spot for days, eating all the new shoots.

This results in an aging forest, and when the old trees start to die off, “you have a real problem,” Rogers said. “And so, if you combine that with drought, which is happening throughout Colorado, throughout the Western states, that is the biggest threat to aspen ecosystems.”

Reintroducing predators, such as wolves, could help — especially because when predators are in the area, herbivores can’t stay in one place long enough to overeat young trees, Rogers said. The reintroduction of wolves in Colorado is a contentious issue that is likely to be on the ballot in the fall of 2020.

Rogers also noted that Colorado Parks and Wildlife managers have increased the targeted size of elk herds over decades. The population goal for the Avalanche Creek elk herd, for example, increased from 3,300 in 1988 to a range of 3,600-5,400 in 2013.

“We’ve taken away predators, for the most part, that are going to keep those populations in check, but we’ve also managed those big herbivore populations for economics, quite frankly,” Rogers said. “Every state sells hunting licenses, and so to keep those revenues up, they keep those populations high. And those high populations have an impact on ecosystems.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism collaborates with Aspen Public Radio and The Aspen Times on coverage of the environment. A version of this story aired on APR on Dec. 27 and this story ran in the Dec. 29 edition of The Aspen Times.

Pocket of severe drought lingers over Southwest U.S., including #Colorado — The Colorado Sun

From the Associated Press via The Colorado Sun (Jesse Paul):

The latest federal map shows a pocket of moderate and severe drought centered over the Four Corners region — where Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah meet.

A large part of Colorado’s western slope, including much of the southwestern part of the state, were listed Thursday by the U.S. Drought Monitor as being in severe or moderate drought.

In fact, only the northeast section of the state, including the Denver metro area and the northern mountains around Steamboat Springs, are not under some kind of drought listing.

In all, nearly 70% of Colorado is abnormally dry or in moderate or severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. A year ago, roughly 85% of the state had some kind of drought status, including 11% that was listed as being in exceptional drought…

Overall, officials say average moisture levels resulting from snowfall are above normal across Arizona, New Mexico and Utah despite precipitation deficits that have accumulated over the last six months.

West Drought Monitor December 24, 2019.

#Snowpack news: SW basins top #Colorado percent of normal

Click on a thumbnail graphic below to view a gallery of snowpack data from the NRCS.

Here’s the Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map via the NRCS.

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map December 30, 2019 via the NRCS.

From The Denver Post (Chris Bianchi):

Across the metro area, a widespread 2-5 inches of snow fell on Friday night and Saturday, including an official total of 2.8 inches at Denver’s official climate site at Denver International Airport.

A few spots picked up above five inches of snow, mainly along the typically snowier Palmer Divide, and in the foothills. One 12-inch snow total was reported near Conifer, by far the highest across the area.

With 2.8 inches of snowfall, though, Denver’s seasonal snowfall is now up to 29 inches, which means that the city will now close out December over six inches above average so far this season. Those figures are based on official observations taken at Denver International Airport.

At the more centrally-located old Stapleton Airport climate site, 2 inches of snow fell between Friday night and Saturday, bringing that climate site’s seasonal snowfall total to 32.2 inches so far this season. That’s closer to 10 inches above average so far this season, despite an overall slow December.

Most of this season’s Front Range snowfall, of course, came during an unusually busy October and November. Denver officially saw 26.2 inches of snow between October and November, making it the fastest start to a winter season in a decade. Most of December along the Front Range has, however, been dominated by a dry and mild weather pattern, though the mountains have continued to pile up big snow totals throughout the winter season.

@COParksWildlife celebrates 30 years of the North American Wetlands Conservation Act

Photo of wetlands at Eliott State Wildlife Area courtesy of Ducks Unlimited via Colorado Parks & Wildlife.

Here’s the release from Colorado Parks & Wildlife (Travis Duncan):

Colorado Parks and Wildlife is celebrating 30 years of the North American Wetlands Conservation Act this month. NAWCA, signed in December 1989, provides financial support for waterfowl habitat that also supports a multitude of other wetland-related wildlife species. NAWCA provides matching grants to wetlands conservation projects in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Over the past three decades, the acquisition and restoration of wetland habitat have provided healthy wetlands where:

  • waterfowl populations have grown,
  • waterways and water sources are cleaner,
  • and recreation opportunities (birding, hunting, hiking and boating) have all increased.
  • NAWCA grants increase bird populations and wetland habitat, while supporting local economies and American traditions such as hunting, fishing, bird watching, family farming, and cattle ranching. Wetlands protected by NAWCA provide valuable benefits such as flood control, reducing coastal erosion, improving water and air quality, and recharging groundwater.

    In the past two decades alone, NAWCA has funded over 2,950 projects totaling $1.73 billion in grants. More than 6,200 partners have contributed another $3.57 billion in matching funds to affect 30 million acres of habitat.

    Since it began 30 years ago, NAWCA funds have contributed $25 million to Colorado’s wetlands.

    “Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Colorado Wetlands for Wildlife Program has been able to leverage annual grant funding from Great Outdoors Colorado to expand the scope of projects in Colorado that are eligible for matching grant funding under NAWCA,” said CPW Wetlands Program Coordinator Brian Sullivan. “These funds are critical to our ability to conserve wetlands in Colorado.”

    “Funding from the North American Wetland Conservation Act was critical to the success of our Rio Grande Initiative to protect 25,000 acres of private ranchland along the Rio Grande and its tributaries,” said Allen Law, Executive Director of the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust. “Conservation easements on these ranches helped our agricultural community while permanently protecting thousands of acres of Colorado’s most resilient and important wetlands.”

    Below are some examples of NAWCA-funded projects in Colorado

    Elliott State Wildlife Area Shallow Water Wetlands – Completed September 2018
    Elliott State Wildlife Area (SWA), adjacent to the South Platte River near Brush, Colorado is a complex of numerous shallow wetlands that are flooded in the spring and fall utilizing Union Ditch water rights for migratory bird habitat and fall public recreation. Unfortunately, many of the basins contained deep, scoured areas that tended to pool deep water, which then limited the capacity of the entire flow-thru complex and greatly hampered bird and hunter use.

    Ducks Unlimited, Inc. (DU) utilized their professional expertise to engineer and regrade 15 of the existing basins, amounting to roughly 200 acres of wetlands. For this project, DU developed a professional engineering plan set that established ideal grading across 15 of the basins, amounting to roughly 200 acres of wetlands. DU then bid, contracted, and managed heavy equipment operators to fill and redistribute soil in the basins in order to disperse water better and provide additional flooded habitat.

    CPW staff also worked to refurbish the water delivery ditch and diversion structures, and improve the water management structures between basins. NAWCA funds of more than $150,000 secured by DU were matched by CPW and Great Outdoors Colorado contributions of nearly $75,000 to enable this project.

    The benefits of this partnership project are widespread, including increased habitat acres, higher quality recreation opportunities, more efficient water use and improved management capacity.

    Cross Arrow Ranch Conservation Easement – Completed September 2009
    Lying at the confluence of the Rio Grande and Conejos River, the Cross Arrow Ranch conservation easement held by the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) protected 3,238 acres of productive ranchlands along with senior water rights. Over 2,000 acres of this property are wetlands, which provide habitat for a wide variety of migratory birds like waterfowl, sandhill cranes, and the endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher.

    Conservation easements are important to wetland conservation in the San Luis Valley because over 90% of wetlands regionally are on private lands. Similarly, the most resilient wetlands are on private lands because senior water rights and flood irrigation boost wetland function, especially during drought years. Conservation easements protect these critical habitats from fragmentation, water export, and residential development.

    To preserve the wetlands on this spectacular ranch forever, NAWCA funding secured by RiGHT was matched by generous contributions from the landowners, Great Outdoors Colorado, and the Nature Conservancy.

    Learn more about the 30th anniversary of the North America Wetlands Conservation Act by visiting http://nawmp.org/nawca30.