Thursday, January 22, 2015

Protecting Rattlesnakes and Rare Plants at Devil’s Backbone

Brad Lambert, CNHP zoologist, spent last spring at Devil’s Backbone Open Space lifting up rocks using a hiking pole. He was looking for prairie rattlesnakes, hoping to find them emerging from their dens. These dens, also called hibernacula, can contain hundreds of prairie rattlesnakes. Lambert’s surveys were part of an effort to find and protect rare animals and plants in one of Larimer County’s most popular hiking, mountain biking, and trail running destinations. Prairie rattlesnakes are not considered rare in the foothills of Colorado, but staff members from Larimer County’s Open Space Program aim to use Lambert’s findings to keep trails away from hibernacula. Lambert, with help from CNHP botanist Pam Smith, documented 32 potential hibernacula in rocky outcrops, prairie dog towns, and piles of concrete debris.

Brad Lambert, CNHP zoologist, searches for prairie rattlesnakes at
Devil’s Backbone Open Space, Larimer County, Colorado

A prairie rattlesnake hesitates before coiling 
Lambert and Smith also documented a new population of jeweled blazing star (Mentzelia speciosa var. speciosa) along a rocky, hogback ridge. Jeweled blazingstar has bright yellow petals and seed capsules that are covered in Velcro-like hairs. The capsules readily cling to animal fur and clothing, allowing the seeds to be dispersed far from the plant’s location. At Devil’s Backbone, the blazingstar was found growing in a native shrubland of mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus montanus) with an understory of New Mexico feathergrass (Hesperostipa neomexicana). This rare plant community is threatened by urban expansion along Colorado’s Front Range.

The bright yellow petals of jeweled blazing star in early summer

Jeweled blazing star's dried seed capsules waiting
to hitchhike on an unwitting animal or human
Larimer County Open Space staff members have used Lambert and Smith’s discoveries to plan trails that route recreationists away from potential rattlesnake dens. This strategy will help minimize encounters between recreationists and rattlesnakes, while protecting rare plant communities and rare plants. We extend our thanks to Larimer County for making this project so close to home a big success!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Uncommon partnership for conservation: how rock climbers are leading the way for bat conservation

by Rob Schorr, CNHP zoologist

In North America, bats are declining at unprecedented rates.  Yet, the term “decline” does not do it justice.  For some reason, migratory tree bats have an affinity for wind turbine facilities, and dead migratory tree bats are being found at wind turbine sites throughout the US.  This unexplained attraction has led to an estimated 600,000 bat deaths annually in the US (Hayes, 2013).  This figure forces one to pause and contemplate a loss of this magnitude.  Unfortunately, this is not the most alarming figure from bat conservation over the last decade.  Since 2006 when a new disease, called White Nose Syndrome, made its way into North America hibernating bat populations have been decimated.  This disease is caused by a cold-loving fungus that infects tissues of hibernating bats, disrupting cellular function when the bats are unable to mount an immune response.  It is estimated that nearly 6 million bats have succumbed to the disease since its arrival in North America.  White Nose Syndrome can impact populations so dramatically as to kill 90-100% of the individuals once hibernating at a site (Frick et al, 2010).  For decades there has been mounting concern for bat populations as roosting locations are lost or disturbed, increased pesticide use alters their food resources, and native habitats are converted to other uses, but nothing prepared conservation biologists for this level of demise.

Fortunately for Colorado, mass mortalities at wind turbine facilities have not been seen, and, as far as we know, White Nose Syndrome has not made its way this far west.  Few biologists feel this is reason to let our guard down.  In fact, Colorado is faced with some challenges that would make diagnosing and abating mass die-offs harder than in eastern North America where White Nose Syndrome has been so impactful.  Colorado biologists have been unable to find hibernacula that house the number of bats seen in the East.  Eastern colonies can be in the millions or thousands, whereas Colorado colonies are substantially smaller and, possibly, more dispersed.  The question left for many conservation biologists is, “how will we know if Colorado bat populations undergo a decline?”

Biologist holding a little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus) captured in north-central Colorado.
Bat biologists in Colorado have a long history of systematically identifying and evaluating caves and mines as potential bat roosts.  Through ventures like the Bats-in-Inactive-Mines Project by Colorado Parks and Wildlife and numerous cave inventories much data have been collected on what underground structures provide bat habitat.  Yet, even with these survey efforts, few large hibernacula were uncovered.  So where are bats hibernating?

Based on research in Colorado, there is growing evidence that bats may be roosting in cracks and crevices.  Given the abundance of geological features in Colorado the number of potential roosts for bats is unfathomable, and there is little likelihood of biologists ever being able to systematically survey such a resource.  However, there is a recreational user group in Colorado that can help bat biologists with this problem.  Rock climbers in Colorado have shared numerous accounts of bats emerging from cracks and crevices during their climbing excursions.

Rob Schorr, Bernadette Kuhn, and Shawn Davis
On November 24th, bat biologists and rock climbers met to talk about how to develop a unique collaboration that might shed light on bat ecology and conservation in Colorado.  The brainchild of Rob Schorr and Bernadette Kuhn of Colorado Natural Heritage Program and Dr. Shawn Davis formerly of the Human Dimensions Department at Warner College of Natural Resources (now at Northern Michigan University), this project is bringing the two groups together to conserve bat populations.  

Shawn Davis leads bat biologists and rock climbers in
a discussion of the potential challenges and solutions to their partnership.
During their inaugural meeting, hosted as a World Café, the groups discussed how they could develop a mutually beneficial partnership that allow biologists to gain new information about bats’ use of crevices.  There was an overwhelming response that this collaboration could be fruitful and valuable for understanding bat resource use and, hopefully, bat conservation in advance of looming threats from White Nose Syndrome.

Karina Mullen Branson of ConverSketch documenting
the discussions and ideas in a mural format.

The final mural of the bat and climber café meeting.

Hayes, M. A.  2013. Bats killed in large numbers at United States wind energy facilities. BioScience 63:975979.
Frick, W. E., et al. 2010. An emerging disease causes regional population collapse of a common North American bat species. Science 329:679-682.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Hunter behavior: planning for the future of wildlife funding

by Rob Schorr, CNHP zoologist

As in Colorado, income from elk and deer hunting drives the economy of wildlife management in the state of Montana.  Rob Schorr and co-authors Dr. Paul Lukacs (University of Montana) and Justin Gude (Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks) analyzed Montana elk and deer hunter data from 2002-2011 to understand what factors influence hunter behavior and the funding that comes from license sales.

Rob Schorr elk hunting in Colorado
They determined that gender, residency, age, license price, and cohort behaviors influence retention and recruitment of individuals into the hunting population.   Millennial hunters grew in numbers but their recruitment decreased rapidly with age.  Baby Boomers were the largest contingency of the hunting population and had the highest retention rates, but as this group ages it is waning from the population.  Increases in license price decreased hunter retention and recruitment slightly.  Hunting populations were growing or stable until 2006, but hunting recruitment decreased by 50% from 2002 to 2011 leading to decreasing hunter populations in Montana.  The $50 million that comes from elk and deer hunting annually accounts for more than 60% of Montana Fish Wildlife Park’s revenue, but as hunter populations decline funding structures for management of game and non-game species will need to be altered.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Hops blue butterfly talk at the High County Lepidopterists’ Conference

Zoologist Rob Schorr (top left) and students
Callie Puntenney and Emily Vavra at the event 
Zoologist Rob Schorr and honors undergraduate students Callie Puntenney and Emily Vavra attended the 25th Annual High Country Lepidopterists’ Conference at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science November 8, 2014.  Rob presented their work estimating the habitat occupancy of the hops blue butterfly (Celastrina humulus) along Monument Creek at the U.S. Air Force Academy.  The abstract from their work is published in the first Denver Museum of Nature and Science Reports publication.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Conserving Roadside Populations of Colorado’s Globally Imperiled Plants

At least 22 globally imperiled plants found along roadside areas in Colorado are at risk of
extinction. One of the biggest conservation issues for Colorado rare native plants is the lack of awareness of their existence and status. CNHP partnered with the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) and Colorado Natural Areas Program (CNAP) for a pilot project to explore how road maintenance activities might proceed while minimizing impacts to rare plants.  Avoiding or minimizing impacts to these species during road maintenance activities may help to effectively conserve their habitat.

Grand Mesa penstemon (Penstemon mensarum) photo by Lori Brummer

To learn more about this pilot project, take a look at the final report.

The species-specific Best Management Practices (BMPs) which complement this document are intended to help increase the awareness of these species for anyone involved in road maintenance activities. The desired outcome of this report and the associated recommended BMPs is to significantly reduce the impacts of road maintenance activities to ten globally imperiled plants on federal, state, and/or private land, while still addressing roadside safety concerns.

Rollins' twinpod (Physaria rollinsii) photo by Steve O'Kane

Species-specific Best Management Practices (BMPs):

BMPs for Arkansas Canyon stickleaf (Nuttallia densa)
BMPs for Bell’s twinpod (Physaria bellii)
BMPs for Brandegee wild buckwheat (Eriogonum brandegeei)
BMPs for Colorado green gentian (Frasera coloradensis)
BMPs for DeBeque milkvetch (Astragalus debequaeus)
BMPs for Good-neighbor bladderpod (Physaria vicina)
BMPs for Grand Mesa penstemon (Penstemon mensarum)
BMPs for Gunnison milkvetch (Astragalus anisus)
BMPs for Rabbit Ears gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata ssp. weberi)
BMPs for Rollins’ twinpod (Physaria rollinsii)

Celebrating National Bat Week in Steamboat Springs

Rob Schorr visited the Steamboat Springs and Hayden, Colorado to celebrate National Bat Week.  Rob gave a presentation at the Bud Werner Memorial Library in downtown Steamboat Springs on Halloween eve, then gave talks at the Hayden Valley Elementary School and the Hayden High School on Halloween.

Rob talking to Hayden High School science class about the importance of bats and
CNHP’s little brown bat conservation project in the Yampa Valley.
The bat-savvy crowd at the Werner Memorial knew much about bat ecology and  were interested to hear about the bat research CNHP was at the Yampa Valley Land Trust’s Rehder Ranch and The Nature Conservancy’s  Carpenter Ranch. The combined 3rd grade classes at Hayden Valley Elementary learned about bat flight, echolocation, and bat conservation, while the high school students were exposed to bat conservation and the use of statistics to answer bat conservation questions.

Rob and high school science teacher Sarah Blakeslee.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

CNHP studies little brown bats to understand stability of populations in Colorado

by Rob Schorr and Jeremy Siemers, CNHP Biologists

In 2006, a new disease called White Nose Syndrome (WNS) appeared in New York that decimated bat populations.  This disease, caused by a cold-loving fungus, appears as a white dusting on the nose of bats has progressed westward as far as Missouri, and there is fear that it will continue its deadly march through to Colorado.  Yet, if it did, would we know? The nocturnal and secretive nature of bats makes monitoring their populations challenging.  That, in addition to the fact we have little knowledge of where many bats overwinter in Colorado, would make detection of a WNS-induced decline would be all but impossible to identify. There may be an alternative, however.  We may be able to monitoring summer (breeding) populations of bats to identify population-level declines.

Bats in flight around ranch house on a star-filled night
(Photo by George Fargo)
CNHP biologists, Rob Schorr and Jeremy Siemers are collaborating with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Yampa Valley Land Trust, and The Nature Conservancy to monitor little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus) populations at 2 ranches in the Yampa Valley.  This summer Schorr and Siemers marked nearly 600 bats with passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags and will return in 2015 to determine how many of the bats return and use the area annually.  This level of monitoring will provide insights into population stability for a healthy population of little brown bats in Colorado.

Schorr releases a female little brown bat after marking (Photo by George Fargo)

Jeremy Siemers and Rob Schorr assembling a 12-foot-tall harp trap
for capturing bats (Photo by Paul Cryan)

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

CNHP Director’s Adventures in India - Part 4

by David Anderson, CNHP Director

On August 3rd, Dr. Ishwari Rai, Botanist at the Wildlife Institute of India, and I departed for a seven day trip to the Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary.  We were joined by Umed Singh, our field technician and also four porters from the village of Ransi, where we started our trek.  
Our expeditionary force on top of Dwara Pass (about 14,000 ft elev).
From left to right: Umed Singh, Dr. Ishwari Rai, B. Khoyal, David Anderson,
Rakesh Bhatt, Jitendra Panwar, and Dinesh Khoyal. 
One of our key goals for this trip was to document rare plant locations to help us delineate a preliminary boundary for an Important Plant Area (IPA).  An organization called PlantLife International has drafted guidelines for creating IPAs worldwide, and when following these guidelines IPAs are also recognized by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs).  There has already been some work in the Western Himalayas to identify IPAs for medicinal and aromatic plants (MAPs), but the Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary was not studied previously so we had the opportunity to define an area here that is particularly rich in biodiversity and home to some of India’s rarest and most threatened plants.  

The Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary area is recognized for the presence of high quality habitat for Musk Deer, but it has not been surveyed extensively.  Unlike the Valley of Flowers area, livestock grazing is allowed in the Sanctuary and the area is very much a working landscape.  This afforded us a chance to compare these two areas and document the impacts of human activities on high elevation ecosystems here.

A herd of goats and sheep above the treeline.
It was wonderful to learn so much about the alpine ecosystem dynamics of the Western Himalayas on this trip from Dr. Ishwari.  The climax community above treeline here is a diverse grassland dominated by Danthonia cachemyriana and Kobresia royleana.  This community currently occupies vast areas of the Western Himalayas.  Danthonia is a bunchgrass that forms tall tussocks, which may reach ages of 1000 years or more.  Near treeline, Danthonia is the dominant species, while at higher elevations it is replaced gradually by a predominance of Kobresia, which is a close relative of sedges.  These areas provide excellent forage for livestock, which are predominantly goats and sheep in this area.  These areas have no doubt been grazed for many hundreds of even thousands of years by both resident and nomadic herdsmen.  Historically, grazing was light in this area, but it appears that in recent years it has increased and is reaching unsustainable levels in some places.  

Once an area becomes overgrazed, most commonly in areas where shepherds camp, the highly palatable graminoids are replaced by a flora of unpalatable nitrophilous species.  Included among these are Polygonum polystachium, Rumex nepalensis, Polygonum chinense, Saussurea hypoleuca, and a few others.  Although the nitrophilous species are native, they thrive under disturbance regimes created by overgrazing, and as such their presence starts out as a symptom of mismanagement.  However, once they become established, these species alter the soil chemistry, precluding the recolonization of a site by graminoids and impeding succession back to a graminoid-dominated system.  So this conversion represents a nearly permanent loss of productive grazing lands, and also biodiversity, and seriously compromises the sustainability of grazing in these areas.  To add insult to injury, the areas without grass roots to hold the soil become highly susceptible to erosion and landslides in the heavy monsoon rains.  

While most of the area we visited remains in good condition, we noted many areas where the Danthonia tussocks have been completely lost, and many others where the conversion is underway, and resting from grazing is urgently needed to allow the grasses to recover. 

This area has been used by people for a very long time (the Hindu temple at Kedarnath was built around 900 AD!), and it will continue to be an important area for the livelihoods of many people.  In delineating this IPA, we hope that it can be used as a tool to improve management and lead to more sustainable grazing.

Danthonia cachemyriana- dominated grassland at approximately 13,000 feet
 in the Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary- this site is in excellent condition.

Degraded Danthonia grassland with increasing dominance of
nitrophilous species.  The broad-leaved plant is the most common
 indicator of overgrazing here, Polygonum polystachium. 

Heavily degraded area that has lost all graminoid species, dominated almost entirely
by Polygonum polystachium. Note that Danthonia is still present on top of the large
rock at top right of the photo where the livestock can’t eat it!

One of the highlights of this trip was the discovery of a new site for Platanthera pachycaulon.  Dr. Ishwari recently rediscovered this species of orchid at a site west of here- it was first described in the 1800’s but hadn’t been seen in over 100 years.  This story is much like that of Gilia sedifolia in Colorado.  The site that Dr. Ishwari found on this trip (which was right next to our campsite!) is now a second location for this species.

Platanthera pachycaulon, discovered by Dr. Ishwari at our campsite!
This specimen will be deposited in the Herbarium of the Botanical Survey of India.  
And of course, another highlight was the spectacular view we got during a break in the Monsoon of the high peaks of the Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary.  

Mountains at the head of Mandani Valley during a break in the Monsoon.
These mountains start about where ours end in Colorado!  Photo by Ishwari Datt Rai.