Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Field techniques - percent cover estimation

If you've read any descriptions of ecological communities you may have noticed that the species composition is often expressed as percent cover. CNHP ecologists and botanists make frequent use of this measurement during field surveys of the habitats of rare plants or animals, as well as using the numbers to describe plant community occurrences.

Cover is usually measured as either basal cover – the area that the stems of plants cover on the ground, or aerial cover – sort of the bird's-eye view of how much ground is obscured by vegetation. Percent cover can be measured with a variety of techniques and equipment, most of which are expensive in terms of time and/or money. Visual estimation of cover is quick, but has the potential to introduce observer bias. Most of us have no trouble distinguishing between 1% cover and 50% cover, but when faced with assigning a percentage to an un-measured plot, our estimates can vary widely.

Field ecologists often have to "re-calibrate" their eyes at the beginning of the field season, or when training new crew members by using careful measurements of sample plots. Here are three examples of different cover levels between 1% and 50%. See if you can match the correct percent to each example from the following choices: 1%, 3%, 5%, 10%, 15%, 20%, 50%.




Answers appear below (keep scrolling).

(A) = 10% (B) = 3% (C) = 20%

How well did you do?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Fen surfing

CNHP wetland ecologist Joanna Lemly took this footage of ecologist Denise Culver investigating an example of a "quaking" fen this summer in Jackson County. Denise is standing on a floating mat of vegetation. These mats are a typical feature of peatlands formed in groundwater-fed basins, and consist of living plants rooted in an accumulation of peat formed from the water-logged remains of dead plants. These mats are often strong enough to walk on, although it may be a bit of a challenge to keep your balance and avoid breaking through to the water below. In contrast to their physical instability, these quaking communities are generally ecologically stable, because they can adjust to fluctuating water levels.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Our team pages are now complete

Since our new website debuted back in July, we've been doing our best to fully flesh out our new website with useful information and meaningful content. One of the new features of our website is a separate page for each of our teams.

CNHP is made up of five separate disciplinary working teams. Our teams work very closely together, and virtually all CNHP projects utilize staff from multiple teams. But, in order to highlight the specialties of each team, we have created a page for each, and all of them are now complete! Check them out!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

New location for Salix candida in North Park

CNHP ecologist Denise Culver found a new occurrence of sageleaf willow (Salix candida) while working near the Canadian River in North Park this summer. This is the first record of the species in Jackson County, Colorado.

Salix candida
Salix candida, the sageleaf willow

This willow is fairly common in more northern (boreal) latitudes of North America, but is also found in rare isolated populations in Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota. In these areas, the species has remained as a relict from the previous glaciation, when what is now typical boreal vegetation was found much further south on the continent. Throughout its range, Salix candida is typically associated with fens, bogs, marshes, and other areas of permanently saturated soils where peat is present. Although globally secure (G5 rank), the species is considered imperiled (S2 rank) in Colorado. Sageleaf willow is also considered a sensitive species for the U.S. Forest Service in the Rocky Mountain Region.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Wetland Ecological Integrity Assessment report available

Ecological Integrity Assessments (EIAs) are multi-metric indices designed to be employed as either rapid or intensive assessments of wetland ecological condition. Practical and ecologically meaningful biotic and abiotic metrics are selected to measure the integrity of key ecological attributes. These indicators are rated and then aggregated into an overall score for four major ecological categories:
  1. Landscape Context,
  2. Biotic Condition,
  3. Abiotic Condition, and
  4. Size.

The ratings for these four categories are then aggregated into an Overall Ecological Integrity Score for each site. These scores can be used to evaluate current wetland condition and track change toward management goals and objectives.

Funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Colorado Natural Heritage Program developed seven EIAs for wetland types in the Southern Rocky Mountain Ecoregion. This project field tested the Subalpine-Montane Riparian Shrublands EIA in the Blue River watershed of Colorado.

The final report; Field Testing of the Subalpine Montane Riparian Shrublands Ecological Integrity Assessment (EIA) in the Blue River Watershed, Colorado, is now available on our reports page.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Summer At Home

by Dawson White

During the summer of 2009 I had the privilege of being a botany intern of the Colorado Natural Heritage Program (CNHP), and I do mean privilege. Over the course of 10 weeks, western-slope field botanist Peggy Lyon was my personal mentor in all things Plantae. As a born naturalist and emerging botanist, this was the best job I have ever had.

Dawson hanging over Unaweep Canyon, where he updated an occurrence of Heuchera rubescens (pink alumroot), a critically imperiled (S1) species in Colorado.

The western slope, specifically the San Juans, had been home all my life prior to coming to Colorado State University. For three years, I was lucky enough to study as a botany field intern for the Andes to Amazon Biodiversity Project in southeastern Peru, and so was not able to see much of my treasured western Colorado. This past summer (2009) I was longing for a good dose of Colorado bluebird-days. After meeting with CNHP Director Dave Anderson and Botany Team Leader Jill Handwerk, I knew I was going to be exposed to some of the most magnificent terrain western Colorado has to offer; and even more exciting, I would be working under one of the top field botanists of the region, Peggy Lyon.

Rare Plant Surveys and monitoring projects were our focus, contracted through various organizations, including the BLM, Forest Service, The Mountain Studies Institute, and The Nature Conservancy. These contracts took Peggy and me to some of the most beautiful places in the West, ranging from the top of spectacular peaks near Telluride, to the Colorado River at the Utah border, the lowest point in western Colorado. I spent every week in a tent in the sticks, right at home, and would return to Telluride on the weekends to get cultured alongside the old friends.

Dawson setting up a monitoring plot for Physaria pulvinata in Lone Mesa State Park.

Needless to say, I saw several bluebird-days, each better than the previous. But my biggest feeling of accomplishment came from the wealth of knowledge I gained about our native flora and the conservation initiatives that are being realized because of our efforts. In addition to the rare plants we were tracking, we would make a complete species list of every site we visited, just for fun. At this point my Weber (Colorado Flora) is tattered and brown, a great sight. I learned a large portion of our native plants and can quickly identify any plant to family, and usually genus and species too.

Our surveys and monitoring projects were essential in the progression of conservation and stewardship of our western Colorado lands. The Dominguez Wilderness, for example, was recently granted wilderness status and it was the job of CNHP to produce the regional rare plant report so that the BLM could establish a reasonable buffer zone. Not many individuals can say he or she has successfully helped to conserve a speck of our diminishing wild lands, but thanks to the chance to work with dedicated and talented scientists and professionals at Colorado Natural Heritage Program, I can say that my work helped enact historical conservation legislation! This is an organization that deserves all of our support; for the success of this institution means the success of environmental consciousness and stewardship.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

CNHP alumnus in the news!

Katie Driver, one of our recent seasonal field botanists and current CSU graduate student, was honored with the 2009 Rocky Mountains Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit Student Achievement Award for her work in creating a protocol for monitoring wetlands in Rocky Mountain National Park.

It was the Colorado National Heritage Program that gave Katie her first full-time seasonal field botanist position. "Here, I was able to really develop my plant identification skills and my knowledge of Rocky Mountain vegetation communities," said Katie. Her work with the Colorado Natural Heritage Program gave her the opportunity to work in both Rocky Mountain National Park and Great Sand Dunes Park and Preserve collecting plant species data to help create park vegetation maps. Katie then went on to become a graduate student with Dr. David Cooper in the Warner College of Natural Resources (the same college where CNHP is based here at CSU), where she developed her award-winning wetlands monitoring protocol. See the full CSU press release here.

Congratulations, Katie! We foresee a long and distinguished career in ecology.