Thursday, May 27, 2010

Site profile: Mee Canyon, Mesa County

B2: Very High Biodiversity Significance
Mee Canyon, Colorado

This site was visited in 2002 as part of the Mesa County Wetland Inventory. In western Colorado's Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness, this scenic redrock canyon contains an enormous cavern cut by a meander of a small stream which drains to the Colorado River. The canyon is rimmed with red Entrada sandstone, and its steep sides are formed in the Kayenta and Wingate formations.

Above the canyon, the mesas supports an excellent example of the Utah juniper/saline wildrye (Juniperus osteosperma/Leymus salinus) community, as well as characteristic stands of black sage (Artemisia novum), Indian ricegrass (Achnatherum hymenoides) and needle and thread grass (Hesperostipa sp.). Dry slopes on the side of the canyon have scattered Utah juniper (Juniperus osteosperma), Fremont barberry (Mahonia fremontii), and cliffrose (Cowania mexicana).

standing in the canyon
Sandstone walls oozing moisture that supports rare species

The canyon bottom is ungrazed, and the difficulty of access to the upper reaches has probably protected it from human impacts. In the narrow riparian area at the bottom of the canyon, the stream banks are covered by dense growth of scouring rushes (Hippochaete sp.), with giant helleborine orchids (Epipactis gigantea) and scattered box elders (Acer negundo) growing among them. Not far from the cavern is a grotto with seeping walls that supports a good example of the globally imperiled hanging garden community (Aquilegia micrantha-Mimulus eastwoodiae), characterized by the yellow Mancos columbine. The state imperiled canyon tree frog (Hyla arenicolor) also occurs here, close to the northern limit of its distribution.

Aquilegia micrantha
The Mancos columbine (Aquilegia micrantha)

Hyla arenicolor
A canyon treefrog (Hyla arenicolor)

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Reports from the field: flash flood

rainy rainbow

Looks like it is getting to be summer thunderstorm season already. This is the time of year when Colorado's eastern plains receive most of their annual precipitation. Many small draws, gullies, and ravines on the plains are dry for much of the year, until a big thunderstorm rolls over and drops a lot of rain. The result can be a flash flood. CNHP ecologist Renée Rondeau took these photos in southeastern Colorado after a teriffic storm.

washed out road
A section of road over a normally dry wash is destroyed by flood waters.

standing water on the prairie
Rain falls faster than the ground can absorb it, resulting in pools of standing water on the prairie.

The next day, you can see the flood debris held by the shrubs. Intact vegetation is important for preventing erosion during these severe weather events.

flood debris caught in vegetation
Flood debris along the path of what was a makeshift river just the day before.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Ecological Systems: Alpine Tundra

Alpine Tundra in Hinsdale County, CO

When people think of Colorado, they often picture snow-covered alpine peaks. Yet this ecosystem covers only about 3% of Colorado's landscape. Alpine tundra is found at the highest elevations in our state - usually above 11,000 feet. Here the long winters, abundant snowfall, high winds, and short summers create an environment too harsh for permanent human habitation.

Characteristic alpine animals include the pika, marmot, rosy finch, and ptarmagin. These species have adapted to cold climates with harsh conditions, and are active in the alpine year-round.  One of the world's rarest butterflies, the Uncompahgre fritillary, lives amongst the dwarf willows at altitudes above 13,000 feet and is found on just a few of Colorado's high peaks.  There are also nine rare and Colorado-endemic plants found only in the alpine zone.

Ochotona princeps
the American pika (Ochotona princeps)

Boloria improba acrocnema
the Uncompahgre fritillary (Boloria improba acrocnema)

Most of the alpine is federally owned (managed primarily by the U.S. Forest Service) and much of it is in wilderness status. Old privately-owned mining claims are scattered throughout, but there are very few active mines operating today. In general, alpine tundra in Colorado is in excellent condition and highly protected.

Alpine Tundra Scorecard Graph
Overall biodiversity, threat, and protection status scores for alpine tundra in Colorado.

The primary threat to this system is global climate change, which could have significant impacts on this system in the future. Impacts from recreation are a distant second. The Colorado Natural Heritage Program and The Nature Conservancy consider the alpine tundra ecosystem to be effectively conserved. For more details see our Biodiversity Scorecard.
Alpine Tundra Windrose Graph
A "windrose" graph depicting alpine tundra status for individual scoring factors.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Field techniques - And away we go...

Field work is engaging and rewarding, and a yearly event for most CNHP staff. Field season is upon us and crews are already out or on their way. Recently, we blogged about some of the considerations involved in this kind of work, and the importance of being prepared.

Although our field crews are prepared to work in all kinds of conditions, field work frequently includes an element of the unexpected. Live-trapping is an important aspect of zoology field work. While live-traps come in various sizes and configurations, it is impossible to ensure that only the species you are interested in wander into them. Zoologists trapping for small to mid-sized mammals therefore never know what they might find.

Some days are more exciting than others.
Old broom handles come in handy for remote trap door release, though it isn't nearly remote enough.

"Rare squirrel species? Sorry, haven't seen it [urp]."

Botany is usually not as heart-poundingly exciting, but does require an intimate knowledge of itty-bitty plant parts, and high-powered lenses.
...and we do mean itty bitty.

A number of CNHP staff practice yoga. This is known as the Downward Botanist.

While there are botanical aspects to wetland classification and quality assessment, this type of field work also involves a serious appreciation for the finer points of mud.
That there is some good mud, I tell you what.

I think the soil pit is winning, Joanna.

We always get landowner permission before accessing a property. Locals are often gratifyingly interested in our work.
It can be a bit tough on the toes, though (whoa, there).

Posting frequency here at the ol' CNHP Blog may get a little irregular over the next few months as we go out and get more valuable data on the biodiversity and ecological health of our great state (and those of us left in the office get a chance to catch up on work that's been piling up), but keep checking in over the summer as we still have a lot more to say. As always, thanks for reading!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Site profile: Chico Basin Shortgrass Prairie, Pueblo County

B2: Very High Biodiversity Significance
Chico Basin

This site was visited in 2002 as part of the Pueblo County Inventory. The site encompasses over 250 square miles of shortgrass prairie in northern Pueblo and southern El Paso counties. Here, extensive tracts of native blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis) prairie on open flats or gently rolling terrain are home to numerous large towns of the black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus).

Cynomys ludovicianus
A black-tailed prairie dog checks out the scene from its burrow.

Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) are commonly seen within these prairie dog colonies, and the site also supports many breeding locations for the Mountain Plover (Charadrius montanus). These declining shortgrass prairie birds typically use areas with low vegetation and a high percentage of bare ground such as is found around prairie dog towns. Other shortgrass prairie wildlife species documented from the site include swift fox (Vulpes velox), McCown's Longspur (Calcarius mccownii), Long-billed Curlew (Numenius americanus), and massasagua (Sistrurus catenatus).

Charadrius montanus
 Mountain Plovers in the kind of habitat that they love.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Field techniques - Be prepared

With the fast approach of field season, we are reviewing and updating the orientation and training materials used by our field crews. In addition to a mass of information about CSU/CNHP policies and procedures and Natural Heritage Program methodology, we provide our crews with useful information about how to live and work safely in the great outdoors.

Topics covered include how to avoid or mitigate heat exhaustion, hypothermia, and altitude sickness, information about hazards such as lightning, hanta virus, ticks, and other wildlife, what to take into the field, and 4x4 driving tips. Field work can be the best job you've ever had, with a few common-sense precautions:

It will rain – so it's nice to have waterproof clothing-
Joe Stevens in the rain
CNHP Ecologist Joe Stevens is still smiling only because it hasn't started hailing yet.

Be prepared for poor driving conditions – you may encounter sand, mud, snow, and wildlife-
field vehicle stuck in the mud
Even the best of roads can flood and, well, this isn't the best of roads!

field vehicle stuck in the snow
Next to a spare tire, a shovel is also extremely handy to have in your vehicle.
And maybe chains, eh Peggy?

bison on side of road
Even if the animals are on the side of the road, keep a close eye on them, as their movements can be unpredictable (and in a large mammal-vehicle contest, nobody wins!).

Choose a tent site carefully, more than just rain, snow, or hail could fall on it-
big tree fell on tent
Yes, that is a giant tree on top of CNHP Ecologist Denise Culver's tent.  Fortunately, no one was in or near the tent at the time, but it took some doing to retrieve her belongings.

And always be sure to carry enough water!
desert skeleton