Here’s the release from the Colorado Water Conservation Board:
A victory for wildlife and Colorado water, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, Colorado Governor Jared Polis, and the Governors of Nebraska and Wyoming signed a Cooperative Agreement to extend the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program (Program) with $156 million.
The Colorado Water Conservation Board has played a major role in this Program’s creation and ongoing efforts, including policy and financial support.
“This collaborative program supports the recovery of four threatened and endangered species by improving and maintaining habitat in the Platte River in Nebraska while allowing for continued water use in Colorado,” said Colorado Water Conservation Board Director Rebecca Mitchell. “We look forward to continuing our role in the upcoming years of the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program.”
“The commitment by the states and the U.S. Department of the Interior to continue the program’s innovative approach to species recovery and Endangered Species Act compliance is a win-win for the future of Colorado’s citizens and the environment,” said Governor Polis.
The Program was set to expire at the end of 2019. However, with support from the Colorado Water Conservation Board; Colorado Parks and Wildlife; the Department of Natural Resources; and other state, federal, and non-governmental partners; a bill supported by the entire Congressional delegation from Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming was passed and signed by the President before the New Year.
Together with its water users, the Colorado Water Conservation Board is celebrating the Program’s more than a decade record of success. As the Program enters into its next 13 years, it has momentum to continue to recover threatened and endangered species, which provides assurance for future water use in Colorado.
In the late 1980s, conservation biologist Jessica Young was an undergraduate researching the sage grouse in the Sierra Nevada when one of her professors handed her a cassette tape. He said there was a guy out in Gunnison, Colo., who claimed that the grouse there sounded different. Young listened to the recording of grouse calls and decided she had to see the birds for herself.
Young began working with Clait Braun, a researcher at Colorado Parks and Wildlife (then called the Department of Wildlife) who had discovered as early as 1977 that the Gunnison sage-grouse was different from its cousin, the wider-ranging greater sage-grouse.
The work of Young, Braun and other scientists eventually helped prove that the Gunnison sage-grouse was a separate species of ground-nesting bird, one that was officially declared a new species in 2000.
But there was a problem.
Researchers quickly realized that not only was this grouse a new species, it was also in serious trouble. By the time they discovered that this bird — which is perfectly adapted to western Colorado’s high-desert sagebrush ecosystem and famous for its elaborate spring mating dance — was a distinctive, smaller species, the bird was already on the verge of vanishing.
“It was clear to me by the mid-1990s that this was about much more than the Gunnison sage-grouse,” Young said. “I remember thinking that it was probably going to be the 21st-century test of how my nation valued both biodiversity and the economic well-being of communities across the West. I believe that is what the Gunnison sage-grouse really represents.”
Target numbers too low?
After years of conservation efforts in the Gunnison basin and elsewhere, the bird’s numbers are still declining. In 2014, in a controversial move that sparked lawsuits from the state of Colorado, Gunnison County and the Gunnison County Stockgrowers Association, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the bird as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. Five years later, it remains unclear what effect the listing has had on the bird.
This past fall, the FWS released its draft recovery plan for the species, which is open for public comment through Tuesday. The plan lays out target-population numbers that must be met for seven out of nine years before the species could be considered on the road to recovery and potentially delisted. The plan also charts conservation projects and actions for the next 50 years, at an estimated cost of more than $560 million. The final recovery plan is scheduled to be completed by Nov. 1.
But environmental groups — along with Braun and Young, two scientists who have dedicated much of their careers to studying the bird — say these population targets are too low to ensure recovery of the species. The target number for the Gunnison basin is 748; in 2019, researchers counted nearly 400 fewer than this.
Gunnison sage-grouse numbers have indeed declined — some say alarmingly so — in recent years.
Over the past several years, the three-year average high male count — the highest number of male birds that the researchers spot — has dropped across all populations. In the Gunnison basin, the 2019 number was 583, down from 772 in 2018, 886 in 2017 and 905 in 2016.
2019 posted the lowest bird numbers since the count methodology was standardized in 1996. The high male count for the Dove Creek population in western Dolores County dipped to zero, while high male counts at Cerro Summit and Poncha Pass in Colorado and the area near Monticello, hovered from just three to seven birds.
“You don’t want to see declines like this when you have seven birds,” said Kathy Griffin, grouse conservation coordinator for CPW. “To say we are not concerned would not be true. … We have seen these kinds of declines before, but we are getting to the lowest we’ve ever been.”
According to a paper by Braun, Young and others, the Gunnison sage-grouse once roamed throughout most of southwestern Colorado. It disappeared from Pitkin County in the 1960s. In the 1990s, it was extirpated in Eagle and Garfield counties.
The largest populations of the Gunnison sage-grouse — and around 85 percent of the bird’s remaining total population — live in the Gunnison basin. Smaller populations of the species, referred to as satellite populations, are scattered throughout western Colorado (Cerro Summit, Crawford, Dove Creek, Pinon Mesa, Poncha Pass and western San Miguel County) and eastern Utah (Monticello).
The 2014 “threatened” listing was based mostly on these shrinking satellite populations, which scientists think need to remain robust as an insurance policy should some kind of environmental-related disaster or disease befall the main population of birds in the Gunnison basin.
Those who opposed federal involvement, including Gunnison County, still feel the sting of the 2014 listing as an affront to the collaborative conservation work of local groups, including the county-led Gunnison Sage-Grouse Strategic Committee. Committee Chair and Gunnison County Commissioner Jonathan Houck said the recovery plan, much like the listing itself, still focuses too much on the satellite populations. The Gunnison basin, Houck said, is doing its part to help the bird.
“The draft recovery plan correctly recognizes the high resiliency of the Gunnison sage-grouse population in the Gunnison basin and also recognizes correctly the strength of the habitat protection in the Gunnison basin,” Houck said. “The irony to me is this is the entire argument we made before the listing.”
CPW uses something called “High Male Count” to track bird numbers year over year. Each spring, biologists watch from the sidelines as regal-looking male Gunnison sage-grouse perform their courtship ritual — strutting and bobbing, fanning their banded tail feathers and popping their air sacs in an effort to attract a female — on leks, which are open areas ringed by sagebrush that the birds return to year after year.
Researchers count each male they see on several trips to the leks they make each season, meaning the same bird can be counted more than once. These numbers are then averaged over three years to smooth out the seven-to-12-year fluctuations associated with grouse population and used to estimate the total population size.
The one-two punch of 2018’s extreme drought, which may have resulted in bird deaths, and 2019’s deep snow may have contributed to this year’s low counts. Counting is a logistical challenge because of the precise method used. CPW biologists were not able to access all of the leks last spring because of lingering deep snow, and in other areas, counters heard the birds’ signature popping noise but didn’t catch sight of them.
“We had a horrible year of counting,” Griffin said. “Because we could never see them, we had to put down a zero even though we knew there were birds there.”
Whatever the reason for the low counts, bird populations will need to increase in order for the FWS to consider the species recovered and to potentially delist it. The recovery plan sets a target three-year average high male count in the Gunnison basin of 748 for seven out of nine years for the population to be considered stable.
The sagebrush sea
Braun and others, including environmental group Rocky Mountain Wild, also say the draft recovery plan lacks specificity when it comes to how to conserve the bird’s habitat — the silvery-green expanse known as the sagebrush sea.
Western Colorado’s sagebrush sea is naturally fragmented by canyons and mountains. But in recent decades, prime habitat has also been bisected by roads and trails, interrupted by residential developments, affected by cattle grazing, and encroached upon by pinon and juniper trees. The Bureau of Land Management manages about 42 percent of Gunnison sage-grouse habitat.
“I think the really key thing is that there needs to be habitat that is set aside from development and other threats on public land, and that isn’t really the case right now,” said Megan Mueller, a senior conservation biologist at Rocky Mountain Wild.
Although some private landowners in the Gunnison basin have participated in habitat restoration projects such as restoring wet meadows and putting conservation easements on their property to protect it from future development, Braun says those measures are not enough. He thinks a more drastic action is needed: stopping livestock from grazing on public land in Gunnison sage-grouse habitat until populations of the bird increase.
“Grazing is a key factor in why sage-grouse populations are down in the Gunnison basin,” Braun said. “Until we get a handle on the livestock grazing, nothing is going to really improve.”
Braun recognizes that his idea to temporarily outlaw grazing on public land in Gunnison sage-grouse habitat is an idea many will find unpalatable, even radical. Ranching is an important part of the culture of rural western Colorado.
“We want to keep ranching active in the Gunnison Valley,” Houck said. “It’s the thing that’s defined this place.”
One challenge to habitat conservation, Young said, is that the sagebrush sea has long been an undervalued ecosystem. It has traditionally been a place with few regulations, where mountain biking and hiking trails snake through the landscape; where people put dumps and mine tailings; where driving off-road was — and sometimes still is — common; and where overgrazing damaged the landscape.
Saving the Gunnison sage-grouse, Young said, will require reexamining the economic, social and ecological values that people hold about this landscape. Although the federal involvement may have polarized some groups, the little ground-nesting bird also has the potential to bring together disparate factions to work toward the same goal: species conservation.
“I think, in the 2000s, the Gunnison sage-grouse are asking us again to consider what our values are for both biodiversity and community success during a time of climate change,” Young said. “They are going to be an indication of how we come together and demonstrate our values and resilience.”
Aspen Journalism collaborates with The Aspen Times and Aspen Public Radio on coverage of water and environmental issues. This story was published online by The Aspen Times on Dec. 31 and a conversation about this reporting aired on APR on Dec. 31.
Here’s the release from the Department of Interior (Brock Merrill):
Secretary of the Interior, along with Governors of Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming, commit an additional $156 million for recovering threatened and endangered species in the Platte River Basin
U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt signed an amendment to the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program Cooperative Agreement, along with the governors of Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming, committing resources to extend the program through Dec. 31, 2032. The Platte River Recovery Implementation Program utilizes federal- and state-provided financial resources, water and scientific monitoring and research to support and protect four threatened and endangered species that inhabit areas of the Central and Lower Platte rivers in Nebraska while allowing for continued water and hydropower project operations in the Platte River basin.
“This program is truly an important partnership that has been successful because of the broad collaboration between federal and state representatives, water and power users and conservation groups,” said Secretary Bernhardt. “All of these stakeholders working together to help recover imperiled species is critical as new water and power projects are continued and developed in the Platte River Basin.”
The program provides compliance for four species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for new and existing water-related projects in the Platte River Basin. Examples of existing water related projects include the Bureau of Reclamation’s Colorado Big-Thompson Project on the South Platte River in Colorado and the North Platte Project in Wyoming and Nebraska.
“Programs like the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program are critical to ensuring that Reclamation is able to deliver water and power in an environmentally and economically sound manner,” said Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman “This program is a true success story of how stakeholders and government from across state lines can work together for the common good.”
The program began in 2007 and is managed by a governance committee comprised of representatives from Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming, water users, environmental groups and the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
“The Platte River Recovery Implementation Program has brought together three states, environmental groups, water users, and two federal agencies to forge a common goal of balancing existing use with an eye towards recovery for four threatened and endangered species,” said Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon. “This program has ensured that Wyoming continues existing water uses in the South and North Platte River Basins while making measurable contributions to species recovery.”
“The signing of the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program Cooperative Agreement Amendment marks the celebration of more than a decade of success,” said Colorado Governor Jared Polis. “The commitment by the states and the U.S. Department of the Interior to continue the program’s innovative approach to species recovery and Endangered Species Act compliance is a win-win for the future of Colorado’s citizens and the environment. We look forward to the next 13 years working with our partners to lead in this national model of collaboration.”
“Agriculture is Nebraska’s number one industry. Extending the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program gives Nebraska’s ag producers certainty around water and land use in the coming years,” said Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts. “We appreciate the collaboration we enjoy with the other states who are party to this agreement, and we look forward to working with them in the coming years.”
The estimated total value of federal and state contributions to the program during the first extension is $156 million. The U.S. Department of the Interior will provide one half of the funding necessary for the extension, which will be matched by states through contributions of non-federal funding and water from state-sponsored projects that is provided for the benefit of target threatened and endangered species.
Every year in late spring, 200 volunteers hike into Rio Grande Gorge north of Taos. Their backpacks are each filled with a few gallons of water – and 100 young Rio Grande cutthroat trout.
The state fish of New Mexico thrives in clear, cold, high-altitude streams, which means its habitat is threatened by wildfires, warming waters and invasive trout species. Now, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation has awarded more than half a million dollars as part of a new recovery program.
Toner Mitchell, Trout Unlimited’s New Mexico Water and Habitat and Public Lands Coordinator, said the money will fund stream improvements and fish restoration. Trout Unlimited will receive $96,059 for New Mexico projects and $152,416 for Colorado projects…
Agencies and tribes in New Mexico and Colorado renewed a conservation agreement in 2013 with a strategy to protect the fish. The groups have restored trout habitat on Comanche Creek, a main tributary of the Rio Costilla and just a few miles from the Colorado state line.
“We want to bring these new fish populations into the best available habitat,” said Kevin Terry, Trout Unlimited Rio Grande Basin Project Manager. “We have spent decades reconnecting stream miles, removing non-native trout and stocking streams with Rio Grande cutthroat trout. Then the agencies check in on those fish to make sure they’re healthy and reproducing.”
On Comanche Creek, the groups have reduced bank erosion and raised the riparian water table by at least a foot, which improves stream flow and habitat for the sensitive fish…
The new funding will help assess habitat restoration work for tributary streams of the Rio San Antonio.
The Center for Biological Diversity wants Rio Grande cutthroat trout to be listed under the Endangered Species Act. But many conservationists believe they can save the fish without federal protection.
The restoration projects are already working, said Mitchell, who added that restrictions on grazing, fishing and land use that usually accompany an endangered status could turn the Rio Grande cutthroat trout into “public enemy No. 1.”
The Rio Puerco Alliance will also receive $151,684 as part of this program to minimize bank erosion on Encinado Creek in Rio Arriba County and create a barrier to keep out invasive trout species.
The people of Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska got an early Christmas present from the U.S. Senate on Thursday, and it has Don Ament breathing a sigh of relief.
Ament has said he was delighted to hear that the U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan bill Thursday to extend the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program as part of the year-end spending package. The bill was introduced by Colorado Senators Michael Bennet (D) and Cory Gardner (R). The bill was passed by the House of Representatives earlier this week and will now go to the president’s desk to be signed into law…
The first increment of the program is set to expire on at the end of this year; Senate Bill 990 extends the program by an additional 13 years. PRRIP is a cooperative agreement among the governors of Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, and the Secretary of the Interior to achieve Endangered Species Act compliance on the Platte River.
Ament, who represents Colorado’s governor on the four-entity board that oversees the program, has been concerned since April about whether PRRIP would be extended. That’s when Bennet and Gardner, along with U.S. Senators John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), introduced the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program Extension Act.
Since then, however, Washington, D.C., has been somewhat distracted by political conflict between Republicans and Democrats, making any kind of bipartisanship seem to be impossible. That has had Ament concerned that funding for the program would lapse after Dec. 31, leaving the program’s future in doubt…
In addition to addressing protections under the federal Endangered Species Act, PRRIP has allowed the three states and the Department of Interior to avoid lengthy and expensive litigation involving the Endangered Species Act. According to a statement released by the U.S. Interior Department, “The program has provided a level of certainty to water users in the Platte River drainage that litigation would not have afforded.”
Whooping crane adult and chick. Credit: USGS (public domain)
Here’s a report from Andrew Davey writing for Nevada Today. Click through and read the whole article, here’s an excerpt:
Around this time last year, Commissioner Brenda Burman delivered this ultimatum to CRWUA attendees: “Close isn’t done, and we are not done. Only done will protect this basin.” This year, as in just yesterday, Burman said, “It was truly remarkable to have the divergent interests of the basin forge a compromise and make the difficult agreements to complete the DCP.”
And unlike last year, when Burman urged officials from across the Colorado River Basin to finish the DCP already, this year she urged patience on matters like renegotiating the 2007 agreement that turned Lake Mead into a sort of regional water bank. On that, Burman declared, “It’s not yet time to take up that task.”
Yet despite Burman’s more relaxed approach, some at CRWUA want to see more “fierce urgency of now”. While the DCP successfully fended off the threat of federal water rations, and while Upper Colorado River Basin snowpack is currently running 15% above average, ongoing legal concerns and the ever escalating threat of climate change may yet upend the delicate peace that the DCP has ushered in for now…
While Burman voiced confidence in the states’, municipal water agencies’, and Native American tribal authorities’ ability to cooperate, some of these very local officials were voicing notes of warning and caution. Shortly after Burman’s presentation on the main stage, Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) Director of Water Resources Colby Pellegrino noted their use of data from the U.S. Geological Survey and UNLV’s Center for Business and Economic Research (CBER) showing less Colorado River water for everyone to work with in the next 50 years.
As Pellegrino described this challenge, “It’s a pretty severe stress test for our water resource portfolio.” Pellegrino then noted how SNWA and the larger community have already been rising to this challenge with conservation programs like outdoor watering schedules and turf removal. As Pellegrino put it, “There’s significant water savings to be achieved by changing the mindset of how we use it.”
Later in the day, I caught up with Pellegrino to talk some more about her presentation and the challenges that lie ahead for her agency and the entire region. When asked how SNWA plans to handle those future challenges, she replied, “Conservation is still right here, under our noses, the quickest and most cost effective way.”
[Friday], it was Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s turn to make news here in Nevada. And make news he did, as Bernhardt announced the federal government will launch an early start of its review of the 2007 Interim Guidelines (as in, the 2007 agreement that launched the ICS program to manage the Lower Basin’s water supply).
Soon after his main floor presentation, Bernhardt spoke with reporters about this and other pressing water issues. On his announcement to jump-start review of the Interim Guidelines, Bernhardt said, “We have an opportunity right now. We have the people in place. We might as well build on the success we have here.”
So what can we expect in this review? And for that matter, what kinds of future changes might we expect in federal oversight of the Colorado River? When I asked Bernhardt whether he’d take into account climate science and the changing needs and consumption patterns of the increasingly urban American Southwest, he replied, “I’ve never taken a position of what we need to tell a city or county what they need to do.”
Yet as Bernhardt’s discussion with reporters continued, the conversation occasionally veered into other environmental matters. And when a couple reporters asked about the proposed oil and gas leases on public lands that have run into local opposition, including right here in Nevada, in the Ruby Mountains outside Elko and in parts of Lincoln County that supply drinking water for Mesquite, Bernhardt declared, “The president was clear when he ran for office what his policy is on energy. He supports an ‘all of the above’ approach.” Bernhardt also suggested these leases are required by federal statute, even though the Obama administration took a more cautious and targeted approach toward such fossil fuel extraction on public lands…
Funny enough, one of my takeaways from my conversation with SNWA’s Colby Pellegrino on Thursday was that regardless of what becomes of the long-fought pipeline plan, SNWA has enough water available to keep the Las Vegas region going for the next 50 years. Also, I noticed that regardless of the Trump administration’s curious comments on climate change and “all of the above” approaches to water infrastructure and fossil fuels, SNWA officials recognize the clear and present danger of climate change, and they’re already acting on it.
And it may not just be SNWA doing this. Even as Trump appointees are skirting around acknowledgement of climate science, fossil fuel pollution, ongoing regional tensions, or the reality of urban and suburban growth in the Colorado River Basin, federal civil servants continue to collect data, analyze trends, and manage the water we all share. We’ll talk more about that next week.
Still, there’s a rather large gap between the rhetoric and overarching policies of the Trump administration and the promises of strong climate action that U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), former Vice President Joe Biden, and the other 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are providing. And yet, we don’t hear as much about the Colorado River and our fragile water supply as you’d expect considering their environmental and geopolitical importance. Yet no matter how much we ignore it, all we have to do is glimpse at Lake Mead to remember how important it truly is to our very livelihood.
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman told federal, state and local water managers that abiding by the promises they made will be crucial to ensuring that more painful cuts aren’t required…
“We need to be proud of what we’ve done,” Burman told hundreds at the annual Colorado River Water Users Association conference at a Las Vegas Strip resort, while also warning of “tougher challenges in the future.”
Arizona, Nevada and Mexico will start taking less water from the river Jan. 1 under a drought contingency agreement signed in May. It followed lengthy negotiations and multiple warnings from Burman that if the seven states didn’t reach a deal, the federal government, which controls the levers on the river, could impose severe water restrictions.
California would voluntarily cut water deliveries if reservoir levels keep falling at the river’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead…
Cuts will most affect farmers in Arizona. The Central Arizona Project will stop storage and replenishment operations and cut water for agricultural use by about 15%. The agency gets more than half of Arizona’s entitlement of water from the Colorado River…
The drought contingency plan is a voluntary agreement to use less water than users are allowed, and its success is measured at the surface level of Lake Mead, behind Hoover Dam east of Las Vegas.
The agreements are designed to prevent a more drastic drought-shortage declaration under a 2007 pact that would cut 11.4 percent of Arizona’s usual river water allocation and reduce Nevada’s share by 4.3 percent. That amount of water, combined, would serve more than 625,000 homes.
California would reduce its Colorado River use by about 6 percent.
Due to a relatively wet winter, Lake Mead is now 40% full and Lake Powell, an upstream reservoir, is at 53% capacity, Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman Patricia Aaron said. A year ago, Lake Powell was 43% full, and Lake Mead was at 38%…
Water managers have called the last 20 dry years a drought, but climate researchers warn the river will continue to carry less water in coming years.
“Respected climate scientists have conservatively estimated declines in river flows of 20% by the middle of the 21st century and 35% by the end of the century,” researchers Anne Castle of the University of Colorado Law School and John Fleck of the University of New Mexico wrote in a study released in November.
The report refers to a “structural deficit” under which states and Mexico are promised more water than the river usually carries and encourages the seven states to clarify rules for handling future shortages.
The key mission of the Refuge System — to protect and restore wildlife habitat — may be falling by the wayside.
The Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge is nestled between the boggy wetlands and glistening ponds of Montana’s Bitterroot Valley. Inside, near a cluttered display of taxidermy birds — a tall American white pelican with a bright orange beak and an osprey caught in midflight — Frances “Wa” Correia greets visitors. The 92-year-old has been volunteering here for 15 years, fielding questions, answering the phone and keeping the kiosk outside filled up with pamphlets. It’s work she enjoys doing. Still, as the number of full-time professional staff dwindles, volunteers like Correia are forced to take on even more tasks, while other important projects are left undone.
The refuge once employed 13 people to manage and study its land. Now, it has only three full-time staffers and one seasonal worker. Consequently, key jobs — such as bird migration surveys, weed management and prescribed wildfires — are being left unfinished. This is a problem plaguing the entire National Wildlife Refuge System, which has suffered from a string of budget cuts and a shrinking staff for the last decade or more.
That means that refuges nationwide have fewer scientists, reduced law enforcement and a lack of habitat restoration. As a result, one of the system’s central responsibilities — to protect and restore wildlife habitat — is falling by the wayside.
The National Wildlife Refuge System, a branch of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, protects more than 850 million acres of land and water. From the marshy Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in Florida to arid landscapes like the Desert National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada, the Refuge System is home to nearly every species of bird, fish, reptile and amphibian in the U.S., making it the world’s largest collection of habitats set aside for wildlife conservation. Around 50 million people visit the nation’s refuges each year.
But funding has not kept up with the system’s needs. Accounting for inflation, the overall Refuge System budget has decreased by almost 18% since 2010. As a result, the number of staff is currently around 2,600, which is an almost 20% drop from 2013. Additionally, as of 2015, there were only 318 refuge officers, down 65% from 1990, according to the 2015 annual report. Fewer officers mean higher chances of damaged property and hunting violations, a matter of particular concern since the Trump administration is opening up additional refuge acreage to hunting and fishing.
On a sunny, early-October afternoon, a cacophony of birdsong — the staccato chirp of the Song Sparrow against the loud whistle of the European Starling — could be heard throughout the 2,800-acre Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge. A group of visitors sat on descending rows of stairs, shaped like an open-air theater, as they watched trumpeter swans glide across the shimmering pond.
While budget and staff cuts may not diminish this experience, they do dampen scientists’ understanding of the local avian population, which includes some 240 species of migratory birds. Deborah Goslin, the refuge’s former biological technician, used to spend her days surveying the migrations of waterfowl, raptor and shorebirds and studying their responses to floods, wildfire burns and other environmental changes.
Goslin was let go, however, and now no one is doing that work. These days, the refuge leans heavily on volunteers, especially for less specialized tasks, such as running the environmental education program or staffing the visitor center. But even with that help, the visitor center is closed many days due to insufficient staffing. “There’s so much information right behind that door,” said volunteer Richard Davis, “and it’s not even available.”
The Trump administration’s budget cuts are hitting all the public-land agencies. But the National Wildlife Refuge System has been struggling for years, never receiving the funding and recognition that it needs, said Geoff Haskett, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, a nonprofit based in D.C. “I don’t think it’s a Democrat or Republican thing,” he said. He suspects that some of the Refuge System’s woes stem from its lack of visibility compared to, say, national parks. But despite these challenges, said Haskett, keeping refuges working remains crucial. Not only do they protect some of the country’s most iconic ecosystems and wildlife, refuges allow the public to connect with the nature around them.
That’s the part that keeps Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge Manager Tom Reed going. A few years ago, a family traveled all the way from Hong Kong to the refuge just to go birding, Reed recalled. “Seeing the joy on the face of what they just observed, it humbles me,” he said. “It makes me realize how lucky I am to look out at this refuge each day.”
Note: This story has been updated to include current National Wildlife Refuge System staff numbers.
Helen Santoro is an editorial intern at High Country News. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or submit a letter to the editor.
The Colorado River at the Imperial National Wildlife Refuge near Cabin Lake, Arizona. Photo credit: USGS
The drying riverbed of the Middle Rio Grande near the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge on April 4, 2018. Photo credit: USBR
A cottonwood forest in Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Matthew Schmader/Open Space Division
Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge via the National Park Service
Truman Middle School students begin a day of water quality testing at the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge by carrying waders into the Rio Grande bosque.
Macro Invertebrates via Little Pend Oreille Wildlife Refuge Water Quality Research
Closer to home and to my heart — Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge.
Greater Sandhill Cranes in flight over the San Luis Valley. The annual Monte Vista Crane Festival takes place during March each year. Photo credit: Colorado Parks and Wildlife
Coyote Gulch at the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge March 10, 2018 during the Monte Vista Crane Festival.