Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Reference Wetlands and Disturbance in the Lower South Platte River Basin

By Laurie Gilligan, CNHP Wetland Ecologist

Last summer, CNHP’s Erick Carlson and I were a two-person team of wetland ecology buffs who spent some plant lD-filled, glorious hours sampling wetlands and riparian areas in our home river basin - the Lower South Platte River Basin. The ‘Lower’ portion of the South Platte refers to the non-mountainous section of the basin, so we surveyed many wetlands and riparian areas in northeast Colorado’s Great Plains.

We sampled two kinds of sites:
  1. reference examples (or the best we could find) of wetlands and riparian areas as mapped by the 1970’s National Wetlands Inventory (mapping digitized right here at CNHP by Gabrielle Smith and Erick); and 
  2. reference examples of wetlands managed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife and other partners for wildlife habitat diversity and waterfowl use. 
Although no sites selected for reference sampling were located in our home city of Fort Collins, we think the random sample of wetlands scheduled for next summer’s portion of this study just may include a few in our backyard.

So what kinds of wetlands were the best of the plains? Well, quite a variety! So enjoy the pictures, and if you like what you see, in the next couple of weeks keep your eyes peeled for our Summer 2013 wetland field technician job search posting on our website! 

We surveyed four woody riparian wetlands abutting the Front Range Foothills. Many riparian areas in the Front Range corridor are impacted by water diversions that reduce the rivers’ capacity to flood and sustain true riverine wetlands. This can cause incised banks as you see at this site. However, sometimes natural forces like busy beavers counter these anthropogenic impacts by creating their own flooding. This riparian shrubland wetland had high plant species diversity and nice pools due to beaver effects. 

We surveyed four sites along the main stem of the South Platte River Floodplain. They say the South Platte River used to be a mile wide and an inch deep. Maybe not so anymore, but the flat landscape and wide floodplains of the Great Plains still create excellent conditions for wildlife habitat when water levels are low and flowing. The sandbars scour and braid and are colonized by big-seeded annual grasses and forbs, making perfect habitat for migratory waterfowl food and nesting. Look at all that habitat patch diversity – that’s pretty neat-ure, eh? 

Six more sites were sampled along smaller, at times ephemeral, rivers that feed into the South Platte. Not all ‘wetlands’ mapped in NWI were actually wet  - this site was sandy and dry, with an open cottonwood overstory and an understory of various native shortgrass prairie species. We were perplexed by the young cottonwoods in the wash – were they resprouts indicative of browse or grazing pressure, or did the wash flood and create a moist and open substrate suitable for new cottonwood establishment?

We surveyed five sites mapped as herbaceous wetlands. On the ground, these ranged from open mesic meadows that would not meet the federal definition of wetlands, to classical wet meadows positioned near a break in slope and supported by high water tables, to a gorgeous fen with 80 cm of peat. This wet meadow pictured had high wildflower diversity, including a strong population of Gaura neomexicana ssp. coloradensis, which is listed as federally threatened by the Endangered Species Act.  Can you spot the flowers of this plant?

We surveyed eight playas, which are shallow, depressional clay-lined wetlands that dry down for periods of time. Their shallow waters and abundant invertebrate food supply provide important habitat for migratory shorebirds in an otherwise arid portion of the western Great Plains.

Many of the playas surveyed in their dry phase hosted hidden surprises – bird nests utilizing cow dung for shade and protection!

We surveyed nine sites managed for wildlife habitat by Colorado Parks and Wildlife and other partners. This sandy depression is a recharge pond that floods and dries down seasonally, creating optimal conditions for an abundance of smartweed (Persicaria spp.), which are big-seeded, moist soil species tasty to waterfowl.  Management of this wetland proved a huge success for waterfowl, as thousands of birds were reported to use this wetland every year.

Though it has been ~40 years since the wetlands of the Lower South Platte basin were mapped, this project is the first of its kind to sample and understand the full range of wetland and riparian diversity across the basin. After a successful summer of surveying 35 reference sites, disturbance ecology proved to be the summer’s mantra. This made for an interesting field season. While landscapes that are less disturbed from anthropogenic effects are the most sought-after for reference sampling, it was a regime of natural disturbance (flooding, beaver activity, wet and dry cycles, etc.) that tied together many of these sites and made them the local gems that they are. Disturbance can be natural, and nature is variable… 

Monday, January 28, 2013

A Trip to Washington DC

by David G. Anderson

A visit to Washington DC is always interesting and inspiring, and my trip this month was no exception!  There were several reasons to go this time.  I gave two presentations on CNHP’s projects at the Transportation Research Board’s (TRB) annual Meeting.  One was on our wildlife escape ramp study, led by Jeremy Siemers, and funded by CDOT.  The other was on our pilot test of the Integrated Ecological Framework, a project funded by TRB.  

Participants in TRB’s annual meeting at the Washington Hilton.
This conference coincided with the Disasters and Environment Conference, held by the National Council for Science and the EnvironmentCSU is a sponsoring institution of this conference and our Dean, Joyce Berry, and our Provost Rick Miranda were there.   There were presentations by many inspiring environmental leaders (the outgoing director of NOAA, Jane Lubchenco, gave a memorable presentation). 

The beautiful Ronald Reagan Building, where the
Disasters and Environment conference was held.  
And of course, I also spent a day visiting our friends at NatureServe’s headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.  With Leslie Honey, Vice President of Conservation Services for NatureServe, I met with Dan Fenn, a staffer in Senator Mark Udall’s Office.  We showed him the State of Colorado’s Biodiversity 2011 and gave him a copy of CNHP’s High Park Fire poster, and it was a wonderful opportunity to highlight some of the ways that we can help identify no-regrets conservation solutions.  Leslie and I made a great team and I hope we can visit our congressional representatives again before long!  It was fun to visit our friends at NatureServe- thank you to everyone (Pat, Leslie, Lori, Don, Rob, Kat, and Bruce) for your hospitality. 

Two of our friends from Oregon, Jimmy Kagan (Director of the Oregon Biodiversity Information Center (ORBIC), CNHP’s analog in that state) and Lisa Gaines (Director of the Oregon Institute for Natural Resources), spent the week there as well and we did a pretty good job of trying some of Washington’s fabulous culinary offerings together while figuring out how to conserve the world's biodiversity.  Jimmy and I visited the wonderful United States Botanic Garden between meetings on the last day of my stay.  One of my favorite things there, aside from the beautiful orchid collection, was getting to see the Wollemi pine.  I had read about the discovery of this ancient tree species in the Blue Mountains of Australia 10 years ago, and it was wonderful to meet this species in person!  

Jimmy Kagan, Director of the ORBIC - a rare species indeed.

Wollemi Pines in the Rare and Endangered Species
Collection at the US Botanic Garden
On the last evening of my stay I walked down Pennsylvania Avenue back to my hotel (after stopping for a beer near the Whitehouse, where I met the City Manager of the City of Auburn, WA and a former hedge fund manager for Louis Bacon - both classic Washington DC experiences), and followed the parade route for Obama’s Inauguration.  

Pennsylvania Avenue on January 17th, just before Obama’s Inauguration
It was wonderful to showcase CNHP’s success, leadership, and conservation innovations in Washington DC with our national leaders.  I am so proud to work at a Heritage Program that has so much to offer in this regard! 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

CNHP Completes Data Exchange with NatureServe

CNHP is a member program of NatureServe.  NatureServe has 82 member programs in Canada, the United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean. The power of the network lies in its consistent use of heritage methodology. Local data are collected and ranked in similar fashion by member programs, and as such, are scalable at national and international levels. Data exchanges between NatureServe and member programs ensure that the entire network has up-to-date information on species’ global imperilment ranks and conservation priorities.

Earth from space

In September 2012, CNHP exported and delivered data on Colorado’s rare and imperiled species to the NatureServe office in Arlington, VA. By December 2012, CNHP received the data back from NatureServe, complete with the latest international ranks and taxonomic information, and integrated the changes into Colorado’s BIOTICs database. This is likely our last data exchange. NatureServe is developing an online database which will replace the current data exchange process and provide real-time data synchronization in the future!

Map of Natural Heritage Member Programs

Thursday, January 10, 2013

New CNHP employee: Jeremy Sueltenfuss

After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Colorado College, my wife and I moved to Venezuela for two years, where we both taught at an international private school.  Teaching middle and high school science was a great way to pass on my passion for the natural world to young eager minds.  After teaching for two years, we moved back to Colorado for me to complete a Master’s degree from Colorado State University.

Jeremy Sueltenfuss and his dog Elvis
Though most of my undergraduate research focused on the response of various wildlife communities to forest management, my interest in wetlands brought me to CSU to look at the impacts of irrigation in the west on wetland ecosystems.  Agricultural diversions have severely degraded the majority of western rivers, but leaky earthen canals transporting this water over large distances create a substantial amount of wetland area across our otherwise arid landscape.  After graduating in the summer of 2012 I worked on a wetland restoration project for the National Park Service.   Historic land use at Florissant Fossil Beds had channelized a wet meadow in the area.  We filled each of the channels and restored the natural hydrologic regime within the valley.  After this great experience CNHP hired me as a wetland ecologist and GIS specialist and I couldn't be happier!

Friday, January 4, 2013

The State of Colorado’s Biodiversity

For the first time in Colorado, scientists and land managers have access to a comprehensive report that measures conservation progress during the past 40+ years. The Nature Conservancy and the Colorado Natural Heritage Program at Colorado State University recently released a report on the state State of Colorado’s biodiversity which ranks the state’s natural heritage as “in relatively good condition” or “restorable.” The report identifies progress on many plant and animal species but notes that significant challenges remain.

The report documents a “scorecard” evaluation using the best available collective data to evaluate lands, animals and plants under the three broad categories of rarity,threats, and protection.

Key findings include:
  • Colorado’s major habitat types are all important for at-risk species and are relatively intact with at least 70% scoring good or very good based on size, condition, and the surrounding conditions.
  • About 40% of all fish and amphibians are inadequately conserved, an indicator of the condition of Colorado’s streams, rivers, and wetlands.
  • Colorado’s prairies are the most highly altered and least protected natural systems and support the most at-risk animals.
  • Many of Colorado's rarest plants are effectively conserved; others are at risk in the path of energy and urban development
  • Lower elevation forests (especially pinyon-juniper and ponderosa pine) are in the poorest condition, are significantly under-conserved and present a high risk of severe fire.
The Nature Conservancy developed the concept, made final reviews and provided funding. The Colorado Natural Heritage Program provided project guidance and conducted the research. The findings create a formal benchmark for gauging the degree to which Colorado’s natural diversity has remained intact for our children.

To read the complete report, click here.

Early reviews from our partners have been favorable:

“The type of information this report contains has been invaluable to the Gates Family Foundation. We have been investors in conservation in Colorado for decades. But until recently, it has been hard to find data that allows the conservation community to keep score in any comprehensive fashion. This data has played a central role in our decision to increase our investment in conservation of Colorado’s grasslands and management and protection of Colorado rivers and streams.”
--Tom Gougeon
President, Gates Family Foundation

“This report tells us we’re doing a good job of conserving birds thanks to private and public land managers. Through cooperative partnerships we can keep moving the conservation needle forward so Coloradoans and people throughout the West enjoy beautiful birds for generations to come.”
--Tammy VerCauteren
Executive Director, Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

NEW GEOSPATIAL DATASET ONLINE: Terrestrial Ecological System Patches

Terrestrial Ecological Systems are dynamic groupings of plant and/or animal communities that: 1) occur together on the landscape; and 2) are linked by similar ecological processes, underlying abiotic environmental factors, or gradients; and 3) form a readily identifiable unit on the ground (Comer et al. 2003). In order to assess the health of Colorado’s major ecosystems, CNHP developed a dataset of large-sized (>20,000 acres) ecological system patches for the “State of Colorado’s Biodiversity” project. Ecological systems were derived from the Southwest Regional Gap Analysis Project landcover dataset (USGS 2004).

Developing this dataset enabled CNHP to identify at-risk ecosystems in Colorado. Individual patches were ranked on a scale of 1-10 based on overall condition status, threat status and protection status. Top threats were assigned to each patch. The results of the analysis show that many of Colorado’s major ecosystems are intact, but only two are effectively conserved. Shortgrass prairie is by far the most altered ecological system. Nearly half of the shortgrass prairie in Colorado has been lost in the past century; however, several large, high quality areas still exist. While these data are an effective tool for broadly measuring current successes, they also highlight intact landscapes that pose great opportunities for future conservation efforts.

Table with Conservation Status Ranks of
Major Ecological Systems in Colorado
These data are bundled in an ESRI geodatabase and can be downloaded from CNHP’s website here.  As always, if you need more detailed information or need data for commercial use, please contact our Data Distribution Coordinator.