Wetlands are a critical part of the San Luis Valley. Not only are they a key water resource, but they also provide habitat for numerous bird species and bring tourism dollars to the local economy. They are truly part of what makes the Rio Grande Basin distinct.
The San Luis Valley has three refuges that are overseen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the direction of the United States Department of the Interior. They are the Monte Vista, Alamosa and Baca National Wildlife Refuges. The first refuge to be established was Monte Vista in 1952, followed by Alamosa in 1962, and finally the Baca in 2000. These areas make up the San Luis Valley Refuge Complex and are three in a system that consists of over 560 refuges nationwide. The Monte Vista Refuge is 14,804 acres and Alamosa comprises 12,026 acres and the Baca is 92,500 acres. The primary purpose of setting these lands aside is to protect vital wildlife corridors as well as water assets that are key to the well- being of the aquifer system that is crucial to the sustainability of the valley.
These refuges also serve as prime habitat and nesting grounds for over 200 species of birds as well as other species of native wildlife such as deer, elk, beaver, and coyotes. The Alamosa Refuge is also home to the historic Mum Well which serves as a key data collection point for Colorado and San Luis Valley Water users. The primary purpose, is to protect lands that are important and that make the San Luis Valley a beautiful place. The landscapes seen in the refuges also highlight the distinct regions of the Valley as well.
The Monte Vista Refuge was established for the purpose of protecting migratory bird species, especially the Sandhill Crane. The San Luis Valley U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office estimates that between 23 and 27,000 Sandhill Cranes make the San Luis Valley a rest stop during their annual migration to and from breeding grounds in the northern US.
The success of the migration north in the spring from winter habitat in New Mexico and Texas to summer habitat in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and Canada and south in the fall is based largely on the birds eating enough food in the SLV to complete the trek, survive winter, and arrive healthy enough to nest and raise the next generation. Grain left after harvest on privately owned fields in the SLV is a major food source necessary to complete a successful migration. Nearly the entirety of the Rocky Mountain Population of Greater Sandhill Cranes passes through Colorado during their migration. The feed from the abundant barley and rest in wetlands that the cranes get in the SLV is critical to the success of the migration and upcoming breeding, and the most important part of the migration in Colorado is the availability of grain and roost sites in the SLV.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife also protect wetland areas across the San Luis Valley. According to a 2012 report by CPW, “The value of wetlands can’t be overstated. About 125 species that are found here in Colorado are dependent on wetlands for their survival, including 98 species of migratory birds.” The species that benefit include waterfowl and 20 priority non-game species.
The agency mitigates wetlands based on a set of criteria that include hydrology, vegetation, land use and conservation. To manage the hydrology the goal is to maintain adequate width and depth (4–8 inches deep) for roosting, maintain flowing water to prevent spread of disease. Vegetation goals include monitoring for the availability of vegetation that produces food, controlling woody vegetation where needed, control encroaching coarse emergent vegetation and the use of livestock and controlled burns to maintain grass overstory.
Land use surveys look at the roosting and feeding sites, provide grit (e.g., pebbles and small gravel) at roost sites if needed, and remove unused fences. Conservation goals include monitoring harvest rates to maintain desirable population numbers and forming and maintaining partnerships between agencies agricultural producers, landowners and the public.
Like the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), National Park Service (NPS), US Forest Service (USFS) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) also work to protect wetland habitats. The Blanca Wildlife Habitat Area, managed by the BLM, serves as a refuge for birds, fish and other wildlife. The wetlands are a key area for birds since they provide habitat for migrating water and shorebirds. The bald eagle and the peregrine falcon also use the wetlands. Other Species of Management Priority that have been documented are American bittern, avocet, common yellowthroat, eared grebe, Forster’s tern, greater Sandhill crane, hen harrier, Savannah sparrow, snowy egret, sora rail, western grebe and yellow-headed blackbird. Shorebirds such as gulls, sandpipers and pelicans are at home in the salty environment, as well as 158 other species including a colony of breeding Snowy Plover. The Blanca Wildlife Habitat is a duck breeding concentration area, with mallards by far the most common, but good numbers of pintail and green-winged teal are also utilizing the area.
The Valleys farms and ranches also support the areas wetlands and see them as important part of the hydrologic cycle. Wetlands work as a sponge that helps to ensure that working ag lands maintain a water source in lean years and symbiotically rotationally grazed wetland remain healthier due do reduced grass overstory and less noxious weeds. San Luis Valley agriculture producers and water managers are partnering to do timed releases of water from area reservoirs to only supply irrigation water, but to insure river and wetland habitats benefit.
In the long run, wetlands provide wildlife habitat, grazing opportunities, groundwater recharge and sustainability of water resources.
Helen Smith is the Outreach Specialist for the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable.