San Luis Valley wetlands are critical to wildlife

From The Valley Courier (Helen Smith):

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.

Willow Creek restoration update

Willow Creek via the USGS

From The Mineral County Miner (Lyndsie Ferrell):

The Headwater Alliance and Willow Creek Reclamation Committee (WCRC) worked with local volunteers on April 27, to plant several willow trees in the floodplain located below Creede. The planting has been an ongoing project for several years. By utilizing willow plants, the organization enhances the natural ability the plant has to filter water through the root system and ultimately releases cleaner water into the creek.

According to Willow Creek Reclamation Committee Engagement Coordinator Laurel Smerch, on Saturday, April 21, in a partnership with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, volunteers with the Headwaters Alliance and the Willow Creek Reclamation Committee came and harvested several willows. Colorado Parks and Wildlife will be expanding a boat ramp on the Rio Grande at the south end of Airport Road in Creede and allowed volunteers to come and collect parts of willows from the ramp location. The organization soaked the shoots for a week, developing root systems before placing them in the floodplain on Friday.

“The cool thing about willows is that if you cut part of it and put it in water for enough time, it will start to develop roots. Willows are also good at filtering water, making them especially useful in mine reclamation. We left these willows soaking in water for a week. On Friday, April 27, some volunteers came out and planted these willows on the floodplain, were they will do the important work of making the creek cleaner,” said Smerch.

The organization is also planning a highway cleanup day on May 21 and a creek cleanup day in June. Both efforts depend on the participation of local volunteers; the organization will welcome anyone wanting to help.

2018 #COleg: Governor Hickenlooper signs SB18-066 (Extend Operation Of State Lottery Division)

The upper Colorado River, above State Bridge. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

From Governor Hickenlooper’s office via The Loveland Reporter-Herald:

Gov. John Hickenlooper signed Senate Bill 18-066 into law Monday, reauthorizing the Colorado Lottery through 2049.

“The Colorado Lottery is the only lottery in the nation that commits nearly all of its yearly proceeds to outdoor recreation or habitat and wildlife conservation,” Michael Hartman, executive director of the Colorado Department of Revenue, said in a press release. “Coloradans can rest assured that their lottery game spending will continue to support the incredible resources that make our state so special, including supporting the capital needs of our state’s great school systems.”

According to the release, in the last five fiscal years, the lottery has distributed more than $670 million to its four beneficiaries — the Conservation Trust Fund, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Great Outdoors Colorado and the Building Excellent Schools Today program.

Since its start in 1983 through fiscal year 2017, the Colorado Lottery has returned to more than $3.1 billion to its beneficiaries.

The money is distributed 50 percent to the Great Outdoors Colorado Trust Fund, 40 percent to the Conservation Trust Fund, and 10 percent to Colorado Parks and Wildlife. GOCO funds in fiscal year 2018 are capped at $66.2 million and funds that exceed the cap will go to the Colorado Department of Education’s Public School Capital Construction Assistance Fund, according to the lottery website.

The current structure of the primary lottery beneficiaries has been in place since 1992, when the people of Colorado voted to the amend the Colorado constitution and create the Great Outdoors Colorado Trust Fund.

Lottery funds have been used to create and restore hundreds of miles of trails, protect hundreds of miles of rivers, create thousands of jobs, add thousands of acres to the state parks system, create more than 1,000 parks and recreation areas, and protect over 1 million acres of land.

Under a reauthorization passed by the Colorado Legislature in 2002, the Lottery division was extended 15 years from 2009 to 2024. The new bill adds 25 years, authorizing the lottery until 2049.

To learn more about where the funds go, visit

Owens Lake: Former toxic dust bowl transformed into environmental success

Blowing Alkali Dust at Owens Lake, California. Photo credit: Eeekster (Richard Ellis) via Wikimedia

From The Los Angeles times (Louis Sahagun):

Fearsome gusts of desert wind routinely kicked up swirling clouds of choking dust over Owens Lake on the east side of the Sierra Nevada after 1913, when its treasured snowmelt and spring water was first diverted into the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

It was not until 2001, and under a court order, that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power began transforming the lake’s grim heritage, flooding portions where toxic, powder-fine dust exceeded federal pollution standards.

In what is now hailed as an astonishing environmental success, nature quickly responded. First to appear on the thin sheen of water tinged bright green, red and orange by algae and bacteria were brine flies. Then came masses of waterfowl and shorebirds that feed on the insects.

On Saturday, Owens Lake was designated a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network site of international importance, joining an exclusive group of 104 areas between Alaska and the southern end of South America certified for their outstanding numbers of birds.

Saturday’s designation is part of a growing movement across the nation and around the world that sees wetlands as crucial connections to natural vistas that are receding as the planet heats up and development spreads.

Rob Clay, director of the shorebird reserve network headquartered in Plymouth, Mass., said it is also testament to a Los Angeles dust mitigation project that “demonstrates how human welfare and biodiversity conservation are intrinsically linked.”

Larimer County and the Big Thompson Watershed Coalition score $175,342 for river restoration

From The Loveland Reporter-Herald (Pamela Johnson):

The county commissioners on Tuesday approved a contract to work with the nonprofit river coalition on continued revegetation in key areas of the flood-damaged canyon with a $175,342 grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board. To match the grant, the county and watershed coalition will put in $175,386, part in cash and part in staff and volunteer resources.

Commissioners Donnelly and Steve Johnson voted 2-0 at their weekly administrative matters meeting to approve the contract, allowing county resources to be used for the project. Lew Gaiter, the third commissioner, was absent.

The county’s in-kind contribution will be worth $23,490, including work by weed specialist Casey Cisneros, and its cash share will be $94,797 from the Larimer County Disaster Fund. The watershed coalition will pitch in $7,250 in cash and $49,849 of in-kind help, including volunteer labor.

This project will focus on the Big Thompson River near Drake, Cedar Cove and Jasper Lake as well as the North Fork of the Big Thompson from Drake all the way to Glen Haven.

Restoration projects have focused heavily on both private and public land along these areas, but additional work is needed for continued weed management and erosion control, said Shayna Jones, coalition director.

“These are areas that received a lot of time and effort in the past,” said Jones. “This is about making sure those improvements are maintained and stay on the right trajectory. … We’ll be able to identify the key focal areas that need a little more attention.”

This work, Donnelly said, is important to the fishery of the river, which is an economic driver for the region, to recreation along the river and to the quality of water that the river delivers to residents, including those who live in Loveland. These projects, he said, help restore the ecosystem and all river functions.

Beavers have, “immense ecological value” — Ben Goldfarb

North American beaver (Castor canadensis)

From The Revelator (Ben Goldfarb):

Whatever destruction beavers inflict, however, is far outweighed by their immense ecological value. In the course of reporting my book, Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, I’ve witnessed these miraculous mammals helping people tackle just about every environmental problem under the sun. In droughty Nevada beaver ponds are raising water tables, sub-irrigating pastures and helping ranchers feed their cattle. In Washington they’re storing water to compensate for declining snowpack. In Rhode Island they’re filtering out agricultural pollution. According to one report, restoring beavers to a single river basin, Utah’s Escalante, would provide tens of millions of dollars in benefits each year.

And beavers don’t just furnish us with ecosystem services — they also sustain a vast menagerie. From wood frogs to warblers, mink to mergansers, sage grouse to salmon, there’s hardly a creature in North America that doesn’t seek sustenance in beaver-built ponds, marshes or meadows. In North Carolina biologists are even mimicking beavers to create habitat for the St. Francis satyr (Neonympha mitchellii francisci), an endangered butterfly whose preferred sedges flourish only in sunlit, beaver-sculpted wetlands.

The conundrum, then, is this: What will it take to square beavers’ proclivity for nurturing life with their tendency to damage infrastructure? How do we reap their benefits without incurring their costs?

Last week I traveled to the town of Agawam, Mass., for some hands-on training in castorid coexistence. My companion for the day was Mike Callahan, founder of the nonprofit Beaver Institute. Since 1999 Callahan has installed more than 1,300 flow devices — pipe-and-fence contraptions that control beaver flooding without requiring trappers to kill the offending rodents. If you appreciate having beavers in your backyard but aren’t keen on snorkeling through your basement, a flow device might just be the solution you’re looking for.

On this day the conflict fell along a road: Beavers had wedged gooey wads of cattails, sticks and mud into a culvert, preventing the adjacent wetland from draining through the pipe. If the water rose too high, Callahan explained, it could wash out the road. To forestall that disaster, we assembled a rectangular wire fence, its sides 16 feet long, and pounded its posts into the mud at the wetland’s bottom. As we worked the vibrato screech of red-winged blackbirds and jackhammering of pileated woodpeckers attested to the pond’s fecundity. The completed flow device effectively surrounded the culvert, preventing beavers from plugging the aperture. (Other designs incorporate concealed pipes to keep water flowing without alerting rodents to the source of the leak.) While beavers would likely be tempted to dam along the fence, Callahan hoped its considerable length would discourage them.

“The goal is to end up with a truce,” he told me.

Callahan’s apparatuses might look simple, but they’re sufficient to thwart nature’s most tireless builders. In one 2005 paper, Callahan found that his culvert-protecting flow devices succeeded 97 percent of the time. Other researchers have observed equally impressive results. A 2008 study found that for every dollar the Virginia Department of Transportation spent on flow devices along the state’s roads, it reaped more than eight dollars in savings on road maintenance and beaver trapping — over $370,000 altogether. And beaver researcher Glynnis Hood recently calculated that a dozen flow devices installed in a wetland park near Edmonton could save Alberta’s government around $180,000.

Even Wildlife Services, beavers’ bete noire, shows fitful signs of coming around. In a 2013 review of various flow device models, Wildlife Services biologists acknowledged that “tools and techniques are currently available to integrate non-lethal beaver management into landscape-scale management plans.” Although the agency’s trappers have been notably slow to apply flow devices in the field, there’s reason to hope that future springs will bring lower kill counts.

“To keep every cog and wheel,” wrote Aldo Leopold, “is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” Beavers, the animals who double as ecosystems, are among our most important cogs, fundamental to the conservation of North America’s water, wetlands and wildlife. Here’s hoping our tinkering gets more intelligent in the years to come.

@COWaterTrust: RiverBank tickets are on sale!

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This year, we have the honor of recognizing our 2018 David Getches Flowing Waters Award winner, Jeff Shoemaker and The Greenway Foundation!

Read more about Jeff’s accomplishments here.