Here’s the release from Colorado State University (Boris Kondratieff):
Editor’s note: Boris Kondratieff, professor of entomology and curator of the C. P. Gillette Museum of Arthropod Diversity at Colorado State University, wrote this piece for The Conversation in January 2020. Colorado State is a contributing institution to The Conversation, an independent collaboration between editors and academics that provides informed news analysis and commentary to the general public. See the entire list of contributing faculty and their articles here.
Experienced anglers recognize that for a trout, the ultimate “steak dinner” is a stonefly or mayfly. That’s why fly fishing enthusiasts will go to extreme lengths to imitate these graceful, elegant and fragile insects.
I share their passion, but for different reasons. As a an entomologist who has studied stoneflies and mayflies for over 40 years, I’ve discovered these insects have value far beyond luring trout – they are indicators of water quality in streams and are a crucial piece of the larger food web. And they are in trouble.
I have served as director of the C. P. Gillette Museum of Arthropod Diversity since 1986. The greatest thrill of my career has been collecting and adding mayflies and stoneflies to our collection.
To find specimens, I have traveled to pristine streams in every U.S. state, Canada, Mexico, Central America, Brazil, Ecuador, the Arabian Peninsula and Europe. My collecting trips have yielded more than 100 new species of mayflies and stoneflies.
One of my favorites literally fell into my lap as I was beating lush foliage along a pristine stream in southern Oregon during May 2014. The beating sheet is an efficient means of sampling dense, streamside vegetation, where adult insects hide. The sheet itself is made of sturdy canvas stretched over two wooden cross members. A stick is used to knock the insects from the vegetation onto the canvas, where they are collected.
When I saw a large yellow and black insect drop onto my sheet, I knew immediately it was a new stonefly species, previously unknown to science. I was ecstatic. My colleagues and I subsequently described it as Kathroperla siskiyou, after the Siskiyou mountains of southern Oregon.
Mayflies and stoneflies thrive in unpolluted water – a fact my colleagues and I have witnessed firsthand on our numerous expeditions. Not only do we see greater overall abundance of these insects in clean streams, but more diversity of species, as well. In polluted areas, we observe the exact opposite. Without a doubt, the presence or absence of mayflies and stoneflies in a stream is a reliable indicator of the quality of its water.
The role of mayflies and stoneflies in the food chain is fundamental, as well. Immature mayflies and stoneflies consume algae, living plants, dead leaves, wood and each other. In this nymph phase, when they have gills and live exclusively underwater, they are an important food source for many animals further up the food chain, including fish and wading birds. When the mayflies and stoneflies emerge from the water as adults, they are essential food for spiders, other insects such as dragonflies and damselflies, and many kinds of birds and bats.
Currently, scientists estimate that 33% of all aquatic insects are threatened with extinction worldwide. Many of these species are mayflies and stoneflies. The mayfly species Ephemera compar has already gone extinct in Colorado, and several other species of aquatic insects are threatened in my home state.
Life drains into a stream
Less than 1% of Earth’s water is potable and available for human use. Maintaining water quality has become an ever increasing challenge because of the large number of chemicals people use in everyday life and in commerce. Common contaminants such as sediment, organic enrichment including fertilizers and animal waste and heavy metals are constantly making their way into the waters, as well. Declining water quality is like a police siren alerting humanity to current, ongoing and emerging pollution problems.
One of my great passions is to enlighten others on how to protect the most valuable natural resource of the planet: streams and rivers. Individually, citizens can make a difference. Storm water is the number one water quality problem nationally. Enhancing and planting riparian buffers – that is, planted areas near streams – can help to prevent precipitation and sprinkler runoff. People can also prioritize using only native plants; decreasing mowing areas; recycling or composting yard waste; using less or no fertilizer; avoiding the use of pesticides; and bagging pet waste. Insisting that environmental laws be enforced and strengthened will also help reduce water pollution.
Without clean water, life on Earth will become difficult or impossible for mayflies and stoneflies, not to mention people.
Here’s the release from Colorado Parks and Wildlife (Rebecca Ferrell):
Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) officials are confirming they have additional evidence that a group of wolves is now residing in northwest Colorado.
On Jan. 19, CPW wildlife officers investigated the discovery of an animal carcass surrounded by large wolf-like tracks in the northwest corner of Moffat County. While conducting their investigation in the field, they made an attempt to locate the wolves. In their search, they heard distinct howls in the area. Officers used binoculars to observe approximately six wolves about two miles from the location of the carcass.
“This is a historic sighting. While lone wolves have visited our state periodically including last fall, this is very likely the first pack to call our state home since the 1930s. I am honored to welcome our canine friends back to Colorado after their long absence,” said Governor Jared Polis. “It’s important that Coloradans understand that the gray wolf is under the protection of the Endangered Species Act. While the animals have naturally migrated to our state and their presence draws public interest, it’s important that people give them space. Due to their Protected status, there are severe federal penalties for anyone that intentionally harms or kills wolves in our state.”
“Right after our two officers heard the howls from the wolves, they used binoculars to observe approximately six wolves about two miles from the location of the carcass,” said JT Romatzke, Northwest Region Manager for CPW. “After watching them for about 20 minutes, the officers rode in to get a closer look. The wolves were gone but they found plenty of large tracks in the area.”
According to the officers, the tracks measured approximately 4.5 to 5.5 inches and appear to have been made by at least six animals.
“As we have made clear, Colorado Parks and Wildlife will not take direct action in these cases,” said Dan Prenzlow, Director of Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “We have the leading experts on wildlife management and species recovery working for our agency, but while wolves remain federally protected, they are under the jurisdiction of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. We will continue to work with our federal partners and monitor the situation.”
According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, killing a wolf can result in federal charges, including a $100,000 fine and a year in prison, per offense. The public is urged to contact CPW immediately and fill out a report if they see or hear wolves or find evidence of any wolf activity in Colorado. The Wolf Sighting Form can be found on the CPW website.
After a year of anxious waiting, scientists and researchers who’ve helped build one of the most successful species recovery programs in the nation have gotten a 13-year extension to finish their work.
The Platte River Recovery Implementation Program began operating in 2007 with the bi-partisan backing of Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska and the U.S. Department of the Interior. Since then it has created some 15,000 acres of new habitat for stressed birds and fish, and added nearly 120,000 acre-feet of new annual water to the Platte River in central Nebraska. An acre-foot equals nearly 326,000 gallons.
The region is critical because it serves as a major stopping point for migrating birds, including the whooping crane, the least tern and the piping plover.
In addition to helping fish, birds and the river, the program also allowed dozens of water agencies, irrigation districts and others to meet requirements under the Endangered Species Act, which can prevent them from building and sometimes operating reservoirs, dams and other diversions if the activity is deemed harmful to at-risk species.
Last year it wasn’t clear that three new governors, three state congressional delegations, and a fractious Congress could come together to re-authorize the program.
Jo Jo La, an endangered species expert who tracks the program for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said everyone was grateful that politicians united to push the federal legislation, and the new operating agreement, through. It was signed by President Trump at the end of December.
“Our program was fortunate to have the leaders it had,” La said.
But it wasn’t just politicians who were responsible for the program’s extension, said Jason Farnsworth, executive director of the Kearney, Neb.-based program.
It was the diversity among the group’s members that was also key, he said. “Everyone from The Nature Conservancy to the Audubon Society to irrigation districts in the North Platte Basin supported this. You don’t often see an irrigation district sending a support letter for an endangered species recovery program. That’s how broad the support was.”
Of the $156 million allocated, Colorado is providing $24.9 million in cash and another $6.2 million in water, Wyoming is providing $3.1 million in cash and $12.5 million in water, Nebraska is providing $31.25 million in land and water, and the U.S. Department of Interior is providing $78 million in cash, according to PRRIP documents.
With their marching orders in hand, researchers and scientists can now focus on completing the program so that at the end of this 13-year extension it will become fully operational.
Early results have won accolades from Wyoming to Washington, D.C. The CWCB’s La said congressional testimony routinely described it as one of the “marquee” recovery programs in the nation, largely because, even though it isn’t finished, species are coming back in a major way.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the endangered whooping crane, least tern and pallid sturgeon, and the threatened piping plover, were in danger of becoming extinct, with the river’s channels and flows so altered by dams and diversions that it could no longer support the species’ nesting, breeding and migratory habitats.
Today the picture is much different.
Still ahead is the work to acquire more water and land, and research to understand how to help the rare pallid sturgeon recover. Thus far it has not responded to recovery efforts, in part because it is extremely difficult to locate.
The idea is to ensure there is enough water and habitat to keep the birds and fish healthy once the program enters its long-term operating phase.
“The intent is to spend the next 13 years working on identifying the amount of water and land that is necessary to go into [the final operating phase]. The focus will be less on acquiring and learning, and more on operating and managing,” Farnsworth said.
Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jerd_smith.
Whooping crane adult and chick. Credit: USGS (public domain)
Least Tern. Photo credit Doug German via Audubon.
Platte River Recovery Implementation Program target species (L to R), Piping plover, Least tern, Whooping crane, Pallid sturgeon
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.