Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Report on Denver's Urban Wetlands Now Available

We are pleased to announce that our report on the condition of urban wetlands in Denver County is now available on the CNHP website. As part of this two year EPA-funded study, we assessed the condition of 46 urban wetlands in the Denver area, updated National Wetland Inventory maps for Denver County, and created a brochure highlighting high quality urban wetlands in Denver County. Special thanks to our partners Kelly Uhing and Alan Polonsky from the City and County of Denver for collaborating with us on the project!

Friday, June 26, 2015

Climate Trajectories for Colorado's Terrestrial Ecosystems

By Karin Decker, CNHP Ecologist

Recently we blogged about CNHP’s Conservation Planning Team evaluating the potential effects of future climate conditions on Colorado’s species and ecosystems. An important part of this work is to look at projected future conditions in comparison with recent climate patterns. The graph below shows the projected direction of change in the current location of Colorado’s major terrestrial ecosystems as described by average annual temperature and precipitation.

Projected seasonal average precipitation and mean temperature trajectories for current upland ecosystem ranges in Colorado summer by mid-century under a high radiative forcing scenario (RCP8.5).
A comparison of recent average values of climate variables with projected values for the current locations of these ecosystems in Colorado show shows seasonal differences both in the direction and amount of projected changes in temperature and precipitation. For instance, ecosystems of higher elevations (e.g., alpine tundra and spruce-fir forest) are projected to experience a greater increase in winter precipitation than those of lower elevations (e.g. sandsage and shortgrass prairie), although the amount of warming is similar for all elevations. Projected changes in summer precipitation are generally less than for winter, with some ecosystems seeing a slight increase and others a slight decrease.

Of course average temperature and precipitation patterns are not the whole story. The interaction of climatic conditions with other abiotic factors (e.g. soils, disturbance), life-history traits of the component species (e.g. growth form, dispersal mechanisms), and past history shapes the observed distribution of ecosystems. Because many of the characteristic species of these ecosystems are long-lived, the time lag between the onset of new climate conditions and the response of the species to those conditions, adds another level of uncertainty to projections of future distribution. Climate changes over the past few decades are probably already facilitating a gradual modification of ecosystem extent and species composition that will become more apparent by mid-century.

Monday, June 22, 2015

CNHP Pilots Water Chemistry Measurements in Wetland Condition Assessments

By Laurie Gilligan, CNHP Wetland Ecologist

The wetlands team kicked off their water chemistry data collection pilot project in the Lower Arkansas Basin under perfect weather conditions: rain, lightning, mud, and more rain! All of the spring rain has filled playas that have not been saturated in years, and is greening up the Arkansas River floodplain and its marshes. These conditions will give our crew the opportunity to test how well our data collection methods work in waters with high variability in sediment and water levels. However, accessing sites safely has meant dodging the notoriously fierce thunderstorms that roll over the open southeastern plains.

Joanna Lemly, CNHP wetland ecologist, collects water samples
in a playa on the southeastern plains of Colorado.
Pools within a small stream outside Florence, Colorado provide
good habitat for native plains fish species.
CNHP is excited to add water chemistry measurements to this year’s wetland assessments. While water chemistry measurements are frequently taken in lakes and rivers, more research is needed on nutrient levels, metal loads, and other water chemistry measurements in shallow vegetated wetlands. By adding water chemistry measurements to our wetland condition assessments, we can begin to observe the relationships between the wetland’s water chemistry and its overall condition. The first step with this pilot year of water quality sampling is to refine protocols and analysis, and to get a glimpse of the range of variation in water chemistry parameters that we may see in the plains.

Playa on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land in Huerfano County, Colorado. With extra spring moisture in 2015, many playas in the Lower Arkansas Basin showed concentric rings of vegetation-in this case, an inner ring of spreading yellowcress (Rorripa sinuata).

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

New Graham's Beardtongue Population Found

During a recent rare plant survey funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, CNHP botanist/ecologist Delia Malone discovered a new population of Graham's beardtongue (Penstemon grahamii) south of Rangely, Colorado. This rare plant is known from only six other occurrences in the state of Colorado. Graham's beardtongue is found on raw shale slopes and knolls of the Green River Formation in Rio Blanco County, Colorado, as well as three counties in eastern Utah: Carbon, Duchesne, and Uintah.

The bright white and caramel-colored shales of the Green River Formation, which often look like pieces of broken plates, give rise to highly basic soils. These soils support a very unique plant community dominated by dwarf shrubs like spiny greasebush (Glossopetalon spinescens) and shadcale saltbush (Atriplex confertifolia). Forbs species such as dragon milkvetch (Astragalus lutosus) and ephedra buckwheat (Eriogonum ephedroides) are also commonly found growing on Green River shales in occupied Graham's beardtongue habitat. This species is considered Sensitive by the BLM.  

Lured in by the bright yellow, protruding staminode called a beardtongue, a Pseudomasaris wasp lands inside the corolla of a rare Graham's beardtongue outside of Rangely, Colorado.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Climate Space: Looking Towards the Future

By Karin Decker

The Conservation Planning Team at CNHP works on a number of projects that evaluate the potential effects of future climate conditions on Colorado’s species and ecosystems. As part of this work, we need to know what current climate conditions are. Here’s a look at the current “bioclimatic envelope” for Colorado’s major terrestrial ecosystems as described by average annual temperature and precipitation.
Bioclimatic envelope as represented by annual precipitation and mean temperature for ecosystems in Colorado. Error bars represent the 10-90% range around the mean.
Desert shrubland occupies the driest bioclimatic envelope, while sandsage and shortgrass prairie are the warmest. Statewide, ponderosa pine forest, oak-shrubland and sagebrush shrubland are closely related in bioclimatic space, and show substantial overlap with the warmer and drier pinyon-juniper woodlands and semi-desert grassland. Above these warm and dry types, mixed conifer, aspen, and lodgepole forest share a mid-elevation envelope with montane grasslands. The coldest, wettest environments are occupied by alpine types, with spruce-fir forest nearby in bioclimatic space.

Although a warmer future appears certain, everything else is much more complicated!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Finding Bird's Foot Violets at Pineries Open Space

CNHP staff botanists Pam Smith and Bernadette Kuhn recently conducted rare plant surveys at Pineries Open Space outside of Colorado Springs. Judy von Ahlefeldt, a Black Forest local, organized the survey in an effort to document populations of the rare bird’s foot violet (Viola pedatifida). The property is owned by El Paso County, and County officials plan to remove hazard trees that were burned during the 2013 Black Forest Fire. The goal of this project is to help El Paso County staff identify the locations of rare plants so they can be avoided during the tree removal process. After a day of surveying, our group of eight volunteers and botanists discovered 52 bird’s foot violets.

Bird's foot violet (Viola pedatifida) is a tallgrass prairie plant. Colorado populations represent the far western edge of the species' range. The destruction of native tallgrass prairie and woodlands is a major threat to this species. 
Our group takes a lunch break among burned ponderosa pine trees at Pineries Open Space. The area was burned in the 2013 Black Forest Fire.
We surveyed for bird’s foot violets along two ephemeral streams that are tributaries of Black Squirrel Creek. The streams were swollen with recent rainfall, and we spotted a large Woodhouse’s toad and heard chorus frogs calling loudly all morning. More rare plant surveys are scheduled at Pineries Open Space this summer. If you are interested in volunteering at Pineries Open Space, feel free to contact CNHP.

We spotted this adult Woodhouse's toad hopping along the forest floor. Woodhouse's toads are common in Eastern Colorado in non-forested areas, and are less frequently seen in ponderosa pine habitats.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

CNHP Travels to Traverse City, Michigan for Biodiversity Without Boundaries Conference

CNHP Botanist Pam Smith, along with CNHP Director David Anderson attended the Biodiversity Without Boundaries Conference this year. The conference was from April 25-30, in Traverse City, Michigan. Pam and Dave went on a field trip to see vernal pools. The trip was led by Yu Man Lee and Peter Badra from the Michigan Natural Features Inventory. We visited two vernal pools, from which Yu Man and Peter netted some amazing creatures, including fairy shrimp. We were just in time to see the fairy shrimp, as adults can only be seen in the vernal pools for three weeks of the year. They emerge early to avoid predation, and lay eggs which can persist through complete drying of the pool until the following spring. The presence of fairy shrimp can be an indicator of a healthy vernal pool ecosystem.

Fairy shrimp from a vernal pool in Michigan.

A vernal pool in Michigan in early spring that contains dense leaf litter. The litter provides important habitat for fairy shrimp, as well as salamander and frog egg masses.
CNHP’s former Director, Chris Pague, won the NatureServe Network Alumni of the year award this year! We are so happy for Chris, who is one of the most enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and effective advocates for biodiversity.

Our good friends at the Nevada Natural Heritage Program won this year’s Collaboration and Mentoring Award, and it was fun to celebrate their achievement and contributions to the NatureServe Network.

Kristin Szabo (Director, middle of photo) and former director Jennifer Newmark (far right) from the Nevada Natural Heritage Program accept the Collaboration and Mentoring Award from NatureServe director Mary Klein (far left).

Friday, May 8, 2015

Graduating CSU Seniors Reflect on Their Work Experiences at CNHP

Lindsey Power and Claire Tortorelli, two CSU seniors and CNHP student employees, are graduating this month. They both took a little time to write a post that captures their experiences working at CNHP. We consider ourselves lucky to have been able to work with these two talented students. Good luck out there Lindsey and Claire! You will be missed.

Reflections By Lindsey Power

Working with the Colorado Natural Heritage Program during my senior year at CSU proved to be a unique and rewarding experience, both personally and professionally as I move forward to the next steps in my career. When I heard Dave Anderson, the director for CNHP speak at one of the Society for Conservation Biology meetings, the program instantly caught my attention. I was a junior at the time, and beginning to think about topics to write my senior honors thesis on. What caught my attention when I first heard about the CNHP was their commitment to learning as much as possible about rare species and applying this science to concrete management goals and actions.

Lindsey Power, pictured here, recently completed an honor's thesis on Sandhill Crane wetland habitat quality in Colorado.
As a wildlife biology student, most of my classes at CSU have been centered on research. Even my previous work-study at the US Forest Service was centered on a long-term research project. While I absolutely love learning as much as possible about the natural world around us, I have come to realize that without reaching out to people, interacting, and actively getting involved in the fight for conservation, not much change can happen. I wanted to do more for my thesis than a literature review, and I wanted it to make at least a little difference. This was the opportunity that CNHP gave me, both as a work-study student, and as an honors student writing a thesis. Being involved with CNHP gave me the opportunity to see the inside-workings of collaboration as well as personal achievement through being part of discussions, working with data analysis and input, and formulating my own ways to complete projects.

When I started working with CNHP at the beginning of the academic year, I was not entirely sure what to expect or where it would take me. In fact, there were many instances during my two last semesters when I had no idea what I was doing. I think this added, rather than detracted from my experience, and taught me that it is OK to not always know what to do. It was through my confusion that I have met so many wonderful people along the CNHP hallway in the General services building with passions and goals similar to my own; always willing to help, always interested in current tasks, and always building community with one another.

My senior honors thesis titled “Assessing wetland habitat quality for Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) in Colorado” took up much of my time at CNHP. Joanna Lemly and Laurie Gilligan, wetland ecologists at the CNHP asked me if I would like to evaluate their process of assessing habitat quality for CPW’s priority species. Because of my interest in ecosystem dynamics, and in particular wetland dynamics, I happily accepted this challenge. Almost immediately, I dove into the data that the wetland team, very graciously, shared with me, and began to analyze the types of habitat variables necessary for one particular priority species (the Sandhill crane) to occur in Colorado. After reading many scientific journals, manuscripts, reports, and lists of facts about wetlands and the Sandhill crane, I began revising some of the data to try to determine the most important habitat variables and ways that managers could apply restoration and conservation actions. After making graphs and tables, and running a few statistical analyses on the summary data, I was able to pick out the aspects that seemed most important, as well as provide feedback on the entire evaluation process. My work on this thesis constitutes only a fraction of the analyses that the wetland team has done, but I hope that it can be used for future analyses of wetland habitat quality for other priority species. This project was challenging and very rewarding, and will be a great experience to bring into my future career.

Illustration of a Sandhill Crane, drawn by Lindsey Power.
During my CNHP work study position, not only did I learn so much more about Colorado’s wetlands and wetland conservation efforts than what any class could offer, but I also experienced what it is like to be totally integrated in research and conservation. I learned how to formulate questions, hypotheses, suggestions, and critiques independently, and then apply them to my work and research. Most importantly, I think, I scratched the surface on just how challenging a career in conservation will be. Yet far from being discouraged, working with the CNHP has empowered me to endeavor in a career in which promoting education about the beauty and importance of the natural world will be my primary goal. It will always be challenging, and there will be many cases where I won’t know what to do. But if there is a community anything like the one at the CNHP, I will be able to face any difficulty and walk away with new knowledge and experiences and a smile.

Reflections By Claire Tortorelli

As a young child, I was determined to be a Scientific Illustrator when I “grew up”.I knew, even then, in order to be happy I must spend my time working in close association with the natural world. Now, I have discovered far more possibilities than my six-year-old self could ever have dreamed of. As a Forestry student at Colorado State University, I am constantly exposed to new ways to become involved in conserving the environment.Although college graduation is just around the corner, and the “real world” is beckoning, I still find myself exploring on hands and knees with hand lens at the ready, wondering, just as I did when I was six.

Claire Tortorelli and Dusty Gannon geek out with their hand lenses.
I can vividly recall sitting in one of those large lecture halls on Colorado State University’s campus, listening, intently I’m sure, to Jennifer Ackerfield lecture on my favorite subject, Plant Identification.It was this one specific day that caught my attention.Dave Anderson was just about to present a guest lecture on rare plant classification and the Colorado Natural Heritage Program (CNHP).After handing out plant guide freebies and prompting many laughs from the class, he made an announcement encouraging students interested in plant identification to apply to intern for the Colorado Natural Heritage Program.The very next day I knocked on his office door. To my surprise and great gratification, he offered me a position as an intern, working under Laurie Gilligan in the Wetland Ecology office.I was ecstatic for the opportinutiy to apply my small set of skills acquired in Ackerfield’s class to “real world” scenarios.

Now, almost three years later, I can hardly believe the diversity of experiences I have gained and the wonderful people I have had the opportunity to meet.As an intern for the CNHP, I have been exposed to a wide range of valuable skills, each one applied to a multi-faceted project. Identifying hundreds of pressed plant specimens, using ArcGIS to create maps, prepping summer field gear, entering data, and editing field guides are just a handful of the tasks that have occupied my time at the CNHP. The skills that I have acquired and the tightly knit community that I have become involved with over the years have allowed me to pursue opportunities that I never would have believed possible. Last summer, I was fortunate enough to have been chosen for a botany field crew surveying the diverse plants of the remote Yukon Charley National Park and Preserve, Alaska.This incredible experience tested nearly every aspect of my physical and mental abilities. It was only because of my involvement with the CNHP that I was even considered for the position, and that I was able to keep my head afloat amidst the millions of mosquitos and hundreds of identified plants.

Claire Tortorelli samples a vegetation plot in Alaska. 
Not only has the Colorado Natural Heritage Program granted me a much improved skill set, a student job, summer employment, and a place in a delightfully welcoming community of nature-lovers, but my time at the CNHP has allowed me to grow as an individual.  Like many students entering University, I had a very vague and scattered idea of what I wanted to do with my life.  Although I am still unsure of exactly what I want to do or where I want to be, I now have a much more focused idea of the variety of work I would like to be involved with and the type of community I would like to be a member of.  The people here have taught me that I never have to let go of that sense of wonder and enthusiasm that I had as a child. I cannot thank the wonderful people of the Colorado Natural Heritage Program enough for all of their kind words and support in preparing me for life post-graduation.

In keeping with a long line of CNHP field botanists, Claire Tortorelli gets excited about a pinecone.