Wildlife, watershed benefit from land trust initiative

The Daily Sentinel, November 13, 2021–Wildlife and the watershed in the Glade Park/Piñon Mesa area will benefit from a new landscape restoration initiative being undertaken by the Colorado West Land Trust thanks to a grant of about $380,000.

The land trust hopes the project will help make some of the lands in the Little Dolores River watershed more resilient in the face of extended droughts and a warming and drying climate. It received the grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s RESTORE Colorado partnership, which also includes Great Outdoors Colorado and the Colorado-based Gates Family Foundation. The grant will fund three years of work, although Rob Bleiberg, the land trust’s executive director, hopes to secure other resources to build on the success facilitated by the grant.

“Our goal ultimately is going to be to protect the important lands and water in that watershed,” he said.

The project seeks to improve riparian habitat, winter big-game range, and meadows, grasslands and shrublands. Work will include things such as tearing down unnecessary fencing that impedes wildlife movement, removing invasive plants, reseeding native vegetation, and installing low-tech structures in streambeds and meadows to reduce soil erosion, restore stream hydrology and raise water tables.

It comes at a time when some springs relied on for a century in the Glade Park/Piñon Mesa area have stopped producing water, and stretches of the Little Dolores River likewise sometimes have gone dry.

“The RESTORE Colorado partnership is excited to support this important effort on Glade Park and to be working with Colorado West Land Trust at a landscape scale,” Chris West, Rocky Mountain regional director for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, said in a news release. “So many species are helped when habitat improvements such as these are made to ranching lands. From migrating elk and deer to sage-grouse and migratory birds, all benefit while at the same time we are helping ranchers more effectively operate on their land.”

The land trust has been working on the project this year with one ranch, but it will include demonstration projects on other ranches as well.

Among the wildlife that will benefit is the Gunnison sage-grouse. It is federally listed as an endangered species, with a population of only several thousand, mostly living in the Gunnison Basin. But the Glade Park/Piñon Mesa area is home to one of a handful of satellite populations of the Gunnison sage-grouse.

The new work builds on efforts that have led to the land trust holding conservation easements protecting about 70% of the land used by the bird in the Glade Park/Piñon Mesa from development. Work undertaken this year has involved building rock and log hydrologic structures in wet meadows that benefit the sage-grouse and other wildlife.

Bleiberg said low-tech structures such as these, and small check dams in streams that imitate beaver dams, are amazingly effective.

The land trust has brought in contractors specializing in construction of such structures. It also made use of volunteer crews for fence removal work this year. Bleiberg said the land trust envisions eventually collaborating with entities like RiversEdge West and the Western Colorado Conservation Corps, and with more volunteers, as it broadens its efforts when it comes to landscape restoration work. One goal of the project is to boost community knowledge regarding restoration work and promotion of land stewardship.

Bleiberg said the Little Dolores River watershed project is one that transcends property lines to have more significant impacts, which means involving multiple landowners and cooperating with the Bureau of Land Management as well when it comes to public lands. With the watershed crossing into Utah, the initiative crosses state lines as well.

So does the reach of the land trust, which holds easements in eastern Utah. Altogether, it holds 550 easements covering more than 125,000 acres of lands in six western Colorado counties and Utah. Bleiberg said those conserved private lands are essential to wildlife, and the land trust recognizes it has an opportunity to get new experience and look to partner elsewhere in its service area with owners of conserved lands when it comes to working on their goals of improving habitat and providing stewardship of those lands.

“This work is an exciting direction for us and we think will add tremendous value to the community and the region over time,” he said.

Article by David Webb.

Photo by David Varner.

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