Wednesday, August 31, 2011

What I did on my Summer Field Season - Part 1

by Amber Provinzano

The summer is over and I am out of the field and back in the classroom for my final semester as an undergraduate student. I’m continuing to work for CNHP in the same data processor position I had last year. Though the time in the field is over, the experience, lessons and memories are far from forgotten. As I’ve said before and can say again after more experience, the field season is a great component of working in natural resources and I am happy with my decision to pursue a degree in wildlife biology.

My 2011 field season experience kicked off at Willhite Ranch in southeastern Colorado with Renée Rondeau, as previously reported.

Mesa Verde and Schmoll’s Milkvetch

In June, along with CNHP’s director, Dave Anderson, and CNHP field botanist Bernadette Kuhn, I ventured to Mesa Verde National Park for 10 days to assist with setting up and revisiting permanent plots used in monitoring the rare Schmoll’s Milkvetch (Astragalus schmolliae), recently made a Candidate Species for listing under the Endangered Species Act. The park’s Natural Resource staff was wonderful: they were eager to help us, providing a few supplies but more importantly extra people on the ground to get the work done.

Amber with a fruiting Astragalus schmolliae (Schmoll’s Milkvetch) and encroaching weeds in the background.

A most memorable experience was the hike to Park Mesa with veg crew member Kyle Doherty to reevaluate a demography plot for the Schmoll’s Milkvetch originally set up in 2001 by Dave Anderson. Kyle and I made our way down and back up the walls of Soda Canyon, catching glimpses of cliff dwellings, and across Park Mesa where the ancient pinyon-juniper forests meet the weed-infested fields now growing on the site of where large fires occurred in 2002.

Small dwelling, we guessed it was used to store food.

A large dwelling in the side of the canyon. Blends in, doesn't it?

The photo everyone takes of Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park.

Short-Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma douglassi)

Despite living in Colorado my entire life, I had yet to see as much of the state as I did on the 10 hour drive to Mesa Verde (we took the scenic route, at my request). And even with 9-12+ hour work days I was able to break away from work for an hour to take the Cliff Palace tour. I am very thankful to have been able to join Dave and Bernadette in this project.

Rare Plants in Jefferson County
CNHP field botanist Pam Smith recruited me to assist her in surveying Jefferson County wetlands for a few weeks in July and August. On my first day out I was lucky enough to see Colorado’s rarest orchid, Malaxis brachypoda (white adder’s-mouth). We also hiked up to see Telesonix jamesii (James’ telesonix), seeing other rare plants tracked by CNHP along the way. Pam also took me to several Jefferson County Open Space parks, and I will definitely be going back for fun. Colorado residents, especially those in and near Jefferson County, should take advantage of these gorgeous natural areas set aside by the county for our enjoyment.

Malaxis brachypoda. Photo by Scotty Smith.

 Telesonix jamesii. Photo by Pam Smith.

From the left, orchid expert and CNHP volunteer Denise Wilson, Amber Provinzano, and Pam Smith at a Telesonix jamesii occurrence. Photo by Scotty Smith.

 Rub-a-dub-dub, Pam in a tub. While it's a cute photo-op, who leaves a bathtub in the woods? Photo by Amber Provinzano.

 My new home! (Assuming the bears don't come back. Oh wait, maybe that was their bathtub.) Photo by Pam Smith.

 To be continued...


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Fire Burns Through the Prairie

by Renée Rondeau and Tass Kelso

Somewhere, under the rainbow (on the prairie).

On a very windy day in March, 2011 a 5,000 acre fire burned across a piece of the prairie east of Pueblo Airport, Colorado. Much of this fire traveled through a small drainage dominated by greasewood (Sarcobatus vermiculatus), rabbitbrush (Chysothamnus nauseosus), and cholla (Cylindropuntia imbricata) shrubs with a dense understory of blue grama (Chondrosum gracile) and alkali sacaton grasses (Sporobolus airoides); secondary grasses included sand dropseed (Sporobolus cryptandrus) and three-awn (Aristida purpurea). As luck would have it, CNHP ecologist Renée Rondeau had set up two permanent vegetation monitoring plots in 1999 and measured the cover, density and frequency of these species. Measurements were repeated in subsequent years including the summer of 2010, enabling us to measure changes in the community as a result of this fire.

On August 16 and 17th, 2011, Renée Rondeau and Tass Kelso (Colorado College) collected vegetation measurements and took repeat photos of the plots. The fire had the effect of transforming what was a fairly dense shrubland into a grassland with sparse shrubs.

Change in shrub cover after the fire.

Rabbitbrush was hit hard with nearly 90% mortality. Cholla individuals showed about 50% mortality; the remaining live chollas were either stump-sprouting from completely charred tops or intact plants with a weakened look of minimal green coloration and stem damage that may die over the next year. Greasewood did surprisingly well; although all of the greasewood had burned to the ground, most were successfully stump-sprouting and had vigorous lush green growth. One greasewood plot had no loss of individuals, and all were stump-sprouting. The other plot lost 34% of individuals, with little to no regrowth apparent.

Cholla - before and after the fire.

Grasses were also negatively impacted by the fire and lost density; numerous culms were completely burned. The grasses that did survive appeared healthy with many inflorescences. Blue grama lost at least 25% of the plants, while alkali sacaton grass lost 38%. Sanddropseed was nearly eliminated with ¾ of the population not visible. Litter was completely burned and bare ground greatly increased going from 24% cover in 2010 to 70% in 2011.

There is a lot more bare ground after the fire. Renée's feet, however, are unchanged.

Due to all of these changes, the landscape has a very different appearance. Depending on moisture availability, we expect shrubs could start sprouting from seeds within the next few years and the shrubs start filling in the open spaces, but it may take years until it goes back to looking like a shrubland. We will let you know as we plan to watch the progression as often as we can.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Data on website updated for 2011

The data that we have available for download and viewing on our website has been updated for 2011. This includes updated potential conservation area reports; downloadable GIS data for element lists by 7.5 minute quad, potential conservation areas, and network conservation areas; updated tracking lists; and an updated interactive map of where CNHP is working this year.

These datasets get updated annually and they are available for free for non-commercial purposes only. For more up-to-date, detailed, specific, and/or commercial use information please contact our Environmental Review Coordinator, Michael Menefee.

Monday, August 15, 2011

We 'heart' rare plants

CNHP botany team leader Jill Handwerk was recently in Rio Blanco County looking for one of Colorado’s rare plant species, and took these photos. Physaria obcordata, the Piceance Basin twinpod, is a perennial member of the Brassicaceae or mustard family. The specific epithet obcordata refers to the heart-shaped ‘silique’ (what mustard fruits are called). These little plants have flowering stems 4-7 inches tall that arise from a basal tuft of silvery leaves.  Flowers are yellow, and typically present in May and June. This species is known only from the Piceance Basin, where it occurs primarily on the shales of the Thirteenmile Creek Tongue and the Parachute Creek Member of the Green River Formation. The Piceance Basin twinpod was listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1990.

 A nice view of the heart-shaped fruit.

Although Jill didn't see the plants flowering, fruits were plentiful.

 The shaley home of Piceance Basin twinpod, with a scenic view of local energy development facilities.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

RMBO BBQ for the Birds August 27

Our friends at the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory will be holding their annual fundraising picnic, "BBQ for the Birds" on Saturday, August 27 at Barr Lake State Park. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper will be present, and there will be lots of fun and interesting activities for kids and bird lovers alike.

They request that you register by August 19, which will be here before you know it, so don't delay!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Ecological systems: Grasslands

Grasslands other than those of the Shortgrass Prairie in Colorado can be classified into three major groups: Western Great Plains Foothill and Piedmont Grassland, Southern Rocky Mountain Montane-Subalpine Grassland, and Inter-Mountain Basins Semi-Desert Grassland. Together these grasslands types cover about three million acres in our state.

Foothill and piedmont grasslands are found at the extreme western edge of the Great Plains, where increasing elevation and precipitation facilitate the development of mixed to tallgrass associations on certain soils. These grasslands typically occur at elevations between 5,250 and 7,200 ft. Typical species include big bluestem, little bluestem, needle-and-thread. 

 Foothill-piedmont grassland - Rocky Flats area.

Montane-subalpine grasslands in the Colorado Rockies are found at elevations of 7,200-10,000 feet, intermixed with stands of spruce-fir, lodgepole, ponderosa, and aspen forests, or as the matrix community in the large intermountain basin of South Park. Lower elevation montane grasslands are more xeric, while upper montane or subalpine grasslands are more mesic. Typical species include fescue, muhly, oatgrass, and others. 

Montane grassland - Mineral County

Colorado’s semi-desert grasslands are found primarily on dry plains and mesas of the west slope at elevations of 4,750-7,600 feet. These grasslands are typically dominated by drought-resistant perennial bunch grasses such as bluebunch wheatgrass, blue grama, galleta grass, and needle-and-thread, and may include scattered shrubs.

 Semi-desert grassland - Mesa County

Common species characteristic of these grasslands include the vesper sparrow, mountain bluebird, Brewer’s blackbird, and white-tailed jack rabbit. Rarer species are the Gunnison’s prairie dog and a variety of skipper butterflies. Impacts from human activity other than domestic livestock grazing are low for most of these grasslands, although a significant portion of historic occurrances have been lost through habitat conversion. The majority of Colorado’s grassland acreage is on privately owned lands, although much of the montane grasslands are on federal land managed by the USFS or the BLM. Although many of our remaining occurrences are in good condition, protection for these grasslands is generally lacking. 

Overall biodiversity, threat, and protection status scores for grasslands in Colorado.
A "windrose" graph depicting grassland status for individual scoring factors.