Monday, December 4, 2017

Talking Myrmecophily: Tristan Kubik Presents His Findings at the High Country Lepidopterists Society

The High Country Lepidopterists Society hosted their 28th annual meeting at Colorado State University this December, and CNHP had a representative presenting his research and pal-ing around with the who’s-who of Colorado’s butterfly biologists. Undergraduate Tristan Kubik, who has his research project “Facultative myrmecophily in the hops blue butterfly (Celastrina humulus)” in review in the journal Entomological News, presented his findings to an audience of approximately 30 entomologists. Tristan conducted this research prior to his sophomore year, and has since developed research to study firefly populations along the Front Range of Colorado. He has proposed population sampling for the rare honey ants of Garden of the Gods Park in Colorado Springs. Congratulations, Tristan!
Dr. Paul Opler displays the conference program and introduces Tristan.

Tristan acquaints an audience of lepidopterists to myrmecophily.

Tristan talks about the variety of ants seen tending hops blue butterfly larvae.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Understanding the Complexity of Little Brown Bat Summer Populations

North American bats have been experiencing unprecedented declines because of a novel disease called white-nose syndrome, wind energy conflicts, and likely because of declines in their insect prey. White-nose syndrome is a disease caused by a cold-loving fungus, and when hibernating bats are infected the fungus shows itself as a white fuzz on the muzzle, ears, and face of bats. When the disease hit eastern bat populations the evidence was clear, as hundreds of dead bats were found at the openings of caves that used to be home to thousands and millions of bats. In western North America, understanding when such a disease hits will be more challenging because many winter roosts house much fewer bats. For example, in Colorado, the largest winter colony of bats is approximately 600.

Because of a lack of large winter colonies, Colorado Natural Heritage Program zoologists Rob Schorr and Jeremy Siemers are turning their attention to monitoring summer colonies. Since 2014, Schorr and Siemers have been conducting mark-recapture studies of little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus) maternity colonies in northwestern Colorado. They have inserted passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags in >1,000 bats, and rigged their roosts with PIT-tag reading antennas to record the arrivals and departures over the summer. These data are valuable for estimating survival of bats and understanding fidelity to roosts.

This year Schorr and Siemers recruited two ambitious Colorado State University undergraduate researchers, Kira Paik and Toryn Walton, to understand what other roosts little brown bats use. Paik and Walton spent the summer tracking 22 little brown bats that were fitted with small radio-transmitters. They discovered that the adult female bats, despite traveling over 30 miles on their evening feeding travels, tended to return each night to roosts that are within a couple miles of the main maternity colony. This knowledge is extremely valuable for understanding where additional mark-recapture effort should be directed if biologists want to identify bat population trends.

Little brown bats after being tagged.

Siemers & Schorr marking little brown bats. 

Little brown bats flying around one of the maternity roosts.

Paik & Walton with the field vehicle for tracking telemetered bats.

Paik at the harp trap with a captured bat.

Walton tracking one of the telemetered bats.

Monday, October 16, 2017

2017 Colorado Rare Plant Symposium

Botanists and members of the Colorado Rare Plant Technical Committee (RPTC) were among the group of nearly 60 people gathered at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, CO, to attend the 14th Annual Colorado Rare Plant Symposium. The symposium is held each fall in conjunction with the Colorado Native Plant Society’s (CoNPS) annual meeting, and is hosted by the Colorado Natural Heritage Program (CNHP) and Denver Botanic Gardens (DBG).

Attendees included professional and amateur botanists with a common interest in Colorado rare plants and their conservation. This year Jill Handwerk (CNHP) presented data and photos of rare plant species known from southeast Colorado, along with the critically imperiled (G1) and federally listed plants species of Colorado. New this year was an afternoon review of the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sensitive species, led by Steve Olson and Carol Dawson, respectively. Additionally, Tim Hogan (CU Herbarium) provided herbarium specimens of the southeast Colorado rare species. The presenters encouraged participants to share their observations about the highlighted species and learn the latest information on Colorado’s rare plant conservation efforts.

Here are some highlights from the 2017 Symposium: 

New populations of rare plants reported in 2017 included populations of West Silver bladderpod (Physaria scrotiformis) and Gibbens’ beardtongue (Penstemon gibbensii).

Genetic studies continue to answer taxonomic and management questions for some of our state’s rarest species, including: boatshaped bugseed (Corispermum navicula), Mancos Shale packera (Packera mancosana), Kremmling beardtongue (Penstemon penlandii), North Park phacelia (Phacelia formosula), in addition to Sclerocactus species of western Colorado and eastern Utah.

Habitat was protected by the Colorado Natural Areas Program for Pagosa skyrocket (Ipomopsis polyantha) with the purchase of 88 acres of occupied habitat. Pagosa skyrocket is endemic to the Pagosa Springs area and is federally listed as threatened.

Steve Olson (USFS) provided an update on upcoming changes in how the USFS regional sensitive species lists are developed. The USFS is moving towards Species of Conservation Concern which must focus on ecological conditions, and will be based on NatureServe G and S ranks. Existing Sensitive Species will remain in effect until new management plans are developed for each forest.

Additional afternoon presentations were as follows: Raquel Wertsbaugh with the Colorado Natural Areas Program (CNAP) discussed the recent incorporation of rare plants into the State Wildlife Action Plan and the implications for land management and conservation. Jessica Smith (CNAP) discussed the implementation of monitoring for Pagosa Skyrocket at the newly acquired state owned property. Susan Panjabi (CNHP) gave a brief presentation regarding recently developed Best Management Practices for Roadside Rare Plants, and an overview of the online Colorado Rare Plant Guide. Moderator Jennifer Neale (DBG) concluded the symposium with a discussion of how we, as a group, can share our conservation successes with a wider audience.

For more information: 

All of the information from this meeting as well as previous symposia is available online at the Colorado State University, Colorado Natural Heritage Program (CNHP) website:

The Rare Plant Symposium is open to anyone with an interest in the rare plants of Colorado. For more information contact Jill Handwerk at or Jennifer Neale at and check the CoNPS website ( for details as they become available about next year’s symposium.

Location of SE Colorado G2G3 plant species. 
Survey site for Pagosa Skyrocket. 
Pagosa Skyrocket.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Chiroptophilia - A Post-CNHP Adventure

By Savanna Smith
(former CNHP work study)

As a Chicago Botanic Garden Conservation and Land Management botany intern at the Shoshone Field Office of the BLM, my love for plants has grown exponentially this summer. I’ve gotten to know the best method for beating the seeds off a Purshia tridentata bush, smelled many a sagebrush, and puzzled over whether or not a Penstemon’s anthers dehisced from the center or the sides. However, I can’t deny my roots in the field of wildlife biology, which is what I studied as an undergraduate. As a climber, it seemed natural to be interested in bats since they often roost in the cracks and crevices only accessible to rock climbers. (For any other wildlife-enthusiast climbers out there, you should check out Climbers for Bat Conservation on Facebook, a cool citizen science project!) My undergraduate thesis research dealt with the acoustic side of bat science, but I didn’t participate in any of the field work for the data. So, you can imagine my excitement when I learned that I would get to assist in several bat-related projects this summer.

The first project involved setting up stationary acoustic bat detectors with Ross from Idaho Fish & Game - this work was conducted for the North American Bat Monitoring Program, a continent-wide protocol aimed at gathering data on the status and trends of bat populations across North America. After securing these detectors during the daylight, we waited until nightfall to conduct mobile acoustic surveys. This involves attaching a bat detector on top of the truck and driving at a constant speed for at least 25 km, all while recording the bats flying overhead. This was fun because I got to watch the calls coming in on a spectrogram in real time.

Last week, myself and other interns had the opportunity to attend a bat bioblitz - an event where scientists attempt to capture all the biodiversity in an area. We set up triple-high mist nets over the river and patiently waited for bats to fly in. We saw and recorded many bats, but only managed to trap two in the nets. Regardless, it was really cool seeing them up-close and learning how to take measurements. At our station, we captured an adult female silver-haired bat (Lasionycteris noctivagans) and a juvenile male Yuma myotis (Myotis yumanensis).

We camped out after the bioblitz and got a quick night of sleep before returning to the office for a day of caving in Gypsum lava tube, the second largest lava tube in the continental US! This was a new experience for me, and I enjoyed the pressing silence and impenetrable darkness that each bend in the passage concealed. In the tube, we found pack rats, a jackrabbit carcass, and even a few bat friends hanging out almost two miles into the tube! It was a great experience to put myself in such a different environment.

I’m thankful that this internship has allowed me to gain experience in a variety of areas, especially since bats are creatures I’ve been interested in for a long time. I only have six more weeks left here in Idaho, and I’m excited to see what’s next.
Sunset view before the mobile acoustic transect.
Adult female silver-haired bat. 
Juvenile male Yuma myotis. 
The entrance to Gypsum lava tube.
Jackrabbit carcass.
Kind of low quality photo of the inside of the tube - check out the multiple levels!

Monday, September 11, 2017

Neal Swayze's Crazy Daisy Adventure!

By Neal Swayze 

This past summer I was chosen as a Siegele Intern to work with the Colorado Natural Heritage Program. The internship lasted a total of ten weeks, with eight individual trips to different locations all around Colorado. I asked for the total CNHP experience, and did I get one! Working with a total of ten CNHP mentors, I learned botany, biology, field protocols, flexibility, teamwork, adaptability, and much more. It was a challenge to constantly be traveling and learning new tasks each week, but it was wonderful and exciting. Fieldwork was described to me as exhausting but ultimately rewarding, and I wholeheartedly agree! Nothing can compare to camping, working and living outdoors all summer. I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to contribute to meaningful conservation while having lots of fun.

Over the course of the summer, I traveled to Norwood, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado Springs, Steamboat Springs, Leadville, Gunnison, Pinyon Canyon Maneuver site, and Saguache County. I contributed to a wide variety of conservation work, including rare plant monitoring/surveys, wetland/ungulate use research, wildlife surveys, small mammal trapping, bat monitoring, sagebrush sampling, a bio-blitz, and finally pitfall trap setup/lizard surveys. It was an eventful summer, and I got a true taste of conservation research while learning the skills necessary to be a member of a conservation field crew. I learned how to be ready and flexible for anything nature could throw my way, while still enjoying the outdoors.

One of my favorite experiences was working on the wetlands at Great Sand Dunes National Park. I worked with other field techs to collect extensive quantitative measurements of wetland quality. We looked for traces of ungulate use including poop, grazing, and tracks. We also collected extensive botany data and water quality measurements. We had to dig small monitoring wells, as well as fix and repair broken ones. I learned how to thoroughly use a GPS, how to drive a 4 wheel drive vehicle, how to set up wetland monitoring plots, how to measure well depth, and how to use, clean, and maintain a water quality probe. I really enjoyed working with the park rangers and field techs, and I learned more than I could have ever expected.

It was a powerful experience to get out in the field, which was something I felt I was missing in my undergraduate education. I learned the value of raw experience, and how nothing else can replace walking around and observing the natural world. Learning from lectures and books is valuable and helpful, but nothing compares to learning out in the field. I highly recommend the CNHP Siegele internship, as I feel it helped catalyze my understanding of ecosystem ecology as well as link together previous knowledge from school with the real world. Plus, if you get the internship you get to see stunning, mild blowing sunsets, and many other beautiful natural vistas! It was a blast of a summer, and it was over before I knew it. I cannot wait to get back into the field, and back to conservation science. I look forwards to more adventures with the CNHP!

Sunset at Lake Catamount, Steamboat Springs.
Physaria pulvinata at Norwood.

Dee and Sarah conducting monitoring plots for Physaria pulvinata

Tyson looking out over the river that runs through Great Sand Dunes. 

Bobby, Neal and John after completing lizard pitfall traps in Pinyon Canyon. 

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Conservation Easement Study

CNHP is pleased to share the study, "Colorado’s Return on Investments in Conservation Easements: Conservation Easement Tax Credit Program and Great Outdoors Colorado." This study evaluates public benefits received by Coloradans from state investments in conservation easements. The study found that each dollar invested by the state produced benefits of between $4 and $12 for Coloradans in addition to protecting numerous key conservation priorities. To learn more, please see the CSU press release linked below.

It was fantastic to work with our colleagues in the Warner College of Natural Resources and @CSUCollegeAgriculturalSciences. This report would never have been possible without help from Great Outdoors Colorado - GOCO, the land trust community and a generous private donation to help fund our work. Thanks to everyone who made this important work possible and we hope the study provides useful information on the State's return on investment for private land conservation efforts.

Pleasant Valley near Bellvue, Colorado

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Rifle and Carbondale Bioblitzes

By Riley Reed

What is a bioblitz?
Last week as a CNHP intern I had the opportunity to participate in two bioblitzes in Rifle and Carbondale, Colorado! A bioblitz is when a team of scientists travels to a designated area to best identify all the flora and fauna species. The scientists are given a twenty four hour period to find, identify, and document all the species that they can. Pictures or live samples are taken of each species that is documented. The purpose of the bioblitz is to gather information about the biodiversity of the area. This can help landowners manage their property more efficiently and promotes the best land use practices. It can also bring attention to any threatened and endangered species that are on the property.

First time? Won't be your last!
For many of the interns and volunteers, including myself, it was our first time learning about and helping with a bioblitz. It was a great learning opportunity that allowed us to get hands-on experience in a relaxed and fun manner. Many different fields of natural resources' work were covered, such as zoology, botany, restoration ecology, and human dimensions. All of the CNHP scientists were very helpful and passionate about spreading their knowledge and teaching the interns and volunteers.

Where did we go?
A large group from CNHP consisting of zoologists, botanists, interns, and volunteers left Fort Collins and headed west to the bioblitz location on a ranch in Rifle. The Ranch had a wide range of habitats that provided a high biodiversity rate relative to the size of the property. The data that was collected on the property was achieved through a variety of different methods. Birds and other wildlife were spotted during flash surveys of the property; camera traps were also set up at various locations. Bats were documented using a sonogram that was set up near the pond at night. Insects were captured with insect nets and a UV light trap at night. Fish were documented with the help of Colorado Parks and Wildlife and one of their fish shocking experts. (I would like to note that no fish were hurt during the fish shocking studies.) Trees, forbs, and grasses were identified and keyed out by the botany teams by walking the property. One specialist group of individuals from the botany team focused their entire time searching and identifying mosses and lichens. Once all of the species were identified to the best of our ability, we packed up and headed to our next location 45 minutes from Rifle around Carbondale.

Change it up?
The Ranch in Carbondale offered a good change of scenery and a new challenge to identify all the species on this section of land. Methods that were used in Rifle were repeated with slight modification to suit the new landscape. The zoologist team had wonderful success catching and identifying a wide variety of new butterflies, and the botany team had great achievements monitoring a rare species of plant known as good-neighbor bladderpod.

Overall, this was a life changing event, and I look forward to participating in future bioblitzes.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Kira and Toryn's Bat Blog

What are Kira and Toryn doing?
We’re following bats! Rob and Jeremy placed radio transmitters on the backs of nine female and one male little brown bats. We are using radio telemeters to track the signal emitted by the radio transmitter to the bats’ locations. When we find the bats, we collect data on their roosting site, including what type of structure they’re roosting in (such as a building or a tree), temperature, roost opening height, total structure height, slope, aspect, elevation, UTM, and other descriptors depending upon the structure type.
Little brown bats in a bat box at Rehder Ranch. 

Roosting little brown bat.

What does a normal day look like?
Since we’re studying bats, many people think we collect our data at night. However, the majority of our data is collected during the day, with a few observations at night. During the day, we find the bats and collect data on their roost sites. Finding some of the bats is easy; others . . . not so much. The transmitter signals can bounce in weird ways in a valley, forest, or building wall. Some signals can't be heard until you are right on top of them; other times you can hear the signal from every direction and have a hard time pinpointing its location. So it occasionally boils down to good luck when finding some of these bats.
One method for tracking bats is using a car-mounted antenna for radio telemetry.

Kira and Toryn locating bats with radio telemetry.
What do we do at night? 
The field work we do at night consists of mist netting, bat counts, and going around to roosting sites to check if the bats have left their day roost site. On June 21st, Rob accompanied us to Sarvis Creek to mist net for bats. A mist net was placed near an unused cabin, and night vision cameras and infrared lights were set up and aimed at the suspected exit roost site to get video of bats. We completed our setup around 8:00 p.m. and didn’t start seeing bats around 9:00 p.m. Kira kept seeing bats that Rob and Toryn didn’t see. Kira may have excellent eyesight or is a liar. Rob and Toryn were going crazy trying to spot the bats Kira ‘saw.’ Unfortunately, we didn’t catch any. However, we saw a ton of them swooping down the river catching bugs.

We also got permission from a private landowner to do a bat count on his property on 06/27. We set up night vision cameras and infrared lights at his doorstep at 9:00 p.m. where there was a pile of guano. We visually counted bats until 11:30 p.m. Kira is probably better at spotting bats than Toryn. The bats can be hard to count because they are difficult to see and you don’t know if you’re counting the same bat. This is why a night vision camera is set up because we will later review the video recording to see the amount of error of visually counting bats versus video recording of the bats. It was fun doing a bat count at night. We lounged in chairs watching the sunset and the stars come out, chit chatting and drinking tea. We also heard mountain lions in the distance, which was cool until Kira decided to tell stories of mountain lion attacks. Thanks Kira. 

The other type of night work we do is visiting the day roost sites. Currently the bats seem to return to the same day roost site every day. This has us worried because we aren’t sure if the radio telemeters fell off the bats or if the females have pups. So we visit the day roost sites at night to see if the bats are moving. Sometimes the bats are moving and aren’t at their sites, and sometimes they are still there.
Setting up for mist netting at Sarvis Creek Cabin. 

Nighttime setup for a roost count. 
What do we do in our free time? 
Nap! We nap a lot. Kira’s favorite napping spot is in the hammock. We also swim and fish in the stream (Kira’s better at fishing), explore the downtown, read books, and watch The Hobbit when we are trying to stay awake until 3 a.m. to check on the bats. We plan on inner tubing down the Yampa River and going hiking.
Kira's rainbow trout.

Toryn's first monstrous catch of the day!

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

2017 Siegele Interns are Here!

Here at CNHP, we’re kicking off the summer with our 2017 Siegele interns! We are so happy to have Riley, Neal, Cora, Lauren, Toryn, and Kira join our team in the name of conservation science. This past week our interns had training, orientation, and were introduced to their mentors and projects they will be working on this season. These projects include a bat study, surveying rare plants, and researching rare animal species.

Because we know our interns love the outdoors, we took them on a “mini field day” to show them a day in the life of an ecologist! They spent time studying the region at Coyote Ridge Natural Area with a focus on occurrences of the rare and endemic Bell's twinpod (Physaria bellii), a neat little plant with a very specific habitat range. We're glad our newest CNHP members got a chance to enjoy the beautiful summer day while searching for the twinpod.

The interns are also becoming fast experts on our citizen science app, iNaturalist, where anyone can upload pictures of cool plants, insects, birds, and other wildlife species they see when out and about. We used the app dozens of times during the field day, and we are excited to see what plants and animals our interns will document during their projects this summer.

We’ll keep you updated on our interns’ work as the season progresses. Whether it’s exploring wetlands, romping around the Great Sand Dunes, or going on bioblitzes with other CNHP crew members, our interns are set to have an exciting and fun summer!

The interns and volunteers meet Bill and Diane Siegele and learn about the projects they'll be working on.

Some interns count Bell's twinpod with an attentive Pam standing nearby.

Talking about all things conservation science!

Interns Riley and Neal with volunteer Lexie take in the beauty of Coyote Ridge. 

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Field Season Black Bear Safety Tips

By Alyssa Meier, CSU Wildlife Biology Undergraduate and CNHP Student Intern

Field season is here, and with warming temperatures, black bears are emerging from winter hibernation. Black bears can spend up to twenty hours a day covering numerous miles of ground in searching for food, which can lead to some surprising encounters while working in the field.

Young black bear snoozing in tree. Photo by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Hear are some tips on what to do if you see a bear:
  • Stay calm. The bear is probably just as shocked as you are.
  • Stop and back away slowly. Sudden movements are often perceived as aggressive and can cause the bear to act defensively in response.
  • No eye contact. Directly looking at bears is seen as a challenge.
  • Speak quietly. Loud noises are perceived as aggressive.
  • Don’t run. Running triggers an automatic predator response in the bears and they will see you as some pretty slow prey. Bears are naturally inquisitive creatures. Some encounters occur because the bear is just curious about what’s going on in the area. The behavior of the bear is indicative of the bear’s intentions.
Bears are very capable climbers and often seek refuge from threats in trees.
Some common bear behaviors:
  • If a bear is sitting or moving away this is often a neutral behavior. Just go about your business.
  • If a bear is standing motionless or ignoring you, it is indicating that they just want to be left alone. As long as you don’t start toward them, the bear will leave you be.
  • Climbing a tree is a show of submission or seeking safety. Mothers will often send their cubs up trees and sit beneath them when they encounter dangers. You’ve probably passed under a few bears hidden up in trees already. Just keep away from the tree and give the bears space and they’ll leave you alone.  
  • If a bear is popping its jaw or huffing, it is a sign nervousness or apprehension. It’s a warning for you to back away and leave them alone.

Monday, May 22, 2017

CNHP Peep Show!

Last month, CNHP hosted its first annual Peep Diorama Contest, and there were far more wonderful entries than we could have possibly hoped for! From The Bunny Band and Chickweed to a Peep Bodies Exhibit and Peeptart, the competition was fierce. Thanks to everyone who participated and voted. You made it an incredibly successful event, and hopefully the first of many!
Jeepers Peepers by Pam
Here are this year's winners:
1st Place: Game of Peeps
2nd Place: Happy Earth Day
3rd Place: Peter Cottontail's Meats
Honorable Peep-mentions: Peeps of the Caribbean & Peep Gothic

Congrats everyone!

Game of Peeps by Alyssa & Sierra

Happy Earth Day by Kristin

Peter Cottontail's Meats by Dave

Peeps of the Caribbean by Denise & Jill

Peep Gothic by Tom

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Congrats to CNHP Graduates Alyssa and Savanna!

Esteemed CNHP work studies Alyssa Meier and Savanna Smith graduated this spring from CSU, both with honors. (Whoo!)

Alyssa worked with CNHP for nearly all four years of college, completing jobs varying from rare plant data entry to field work that included some nasty allergies (and the occasional ant bite). She was one of the Siegele interns last summer and an invaluable contributor to the nerd word of the day. She received her Bachelor's in Fish Wildlife and Conservation Biology with a minor in Creative Writing. Now she is off to collar elk calves in southern Colorado for the CPW and will return to do field work for CNHP at the Air Force Academy later this summer.

Savanna was with CNHP for the past year where she helped enter data from the endless pile of element occurrence records. For her honors thesis project, she studied the effects of noise and other factors on Colorado bat occupancy with the help of zoologist Jeremy Siemers (a fantastic poster of her findings is on the hallway wall next to the kitchen). She received her Bachelor's in Wildlife Biology with a minor in Ecological Restoration. Soon she will be headed north to work for Idaho's Bureau of Land Management.

These two will be sorely missed (and bribery attempts to get them to return to CNHP are undoubtedly in the foreseeable future). Congratulations to both of you! Have fun (and good luck) "adulting" in the real world!

Savanna on the steps of the CSU Administration Building.

(Typical) Alyssa giving one last huzzah as a CSU Ram.

Monday, May 15, 2017

RARE II, Imperiled Plants of Colorado: Exhibit at the Ft. Collins Museum of Discovery

The Fort Collins Museum of Discovery (Mason and Cherry streets) is hosting the amazing art exhibit, RARE II, Imperiled Plants of Colorado, May 6 - August 6, 2017. The exhibit was organized by our important partners from the Rocky Mountain Society of Botanical Artists.

The illustrations are beautiful, highly accurate, and significant because they call attention to these little-known rare and imperiled plant species found in Colorado, and, in many cases, are not known from anywhere else in the world. The Colorado Rare Plant Conservation Initiative identifies lack of awareness as one of the most noteworthy threats to these species' long-term viability. For additional information about these and other Colorado rare plants, please visit the Colorado Rare Plant Guide, hosted on the Colorado Natural Heritage Program website.

Big thanks to the Rocky Mountain Society of Botanical Artists and the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Human Disturbance in Colorado’s Potential Conservation Areas

by the ESS 440 Anthropogenic Disturbance Team

Throughout the spring 2017 semester at Colorado State, seniors in the ecosystem science program have been working through their senior project with the help of a local Colorado agency or organization. This blogpost is an overview of one of the team's collaboration with the Colorado Natural Heritage Program. For more information on the team and an overview of this project, please see our previous blog post, found here.

The Colorado Natural Heritage Program (CNHP) has worked in Colorado since 1979, cataloguing information about the rare and endangered species that exist within the state.  One aspect of their work has been the creation of potential conservation areas (PCAs) in Colorado. A PCA is an area created to denote some level of biodiversity significance. CNHP has identified these areas in the hopes of protecting the plants and animals that reside within it. The main objective of the following project is to build upon CNHP's work in order to better understand the level at which potential conservation areas (PCAs) in Colorado have been disturbed by human activities.

Map of Potential Conservation Areas
Location and rank of Colorado's potential conservation areas (PCAs)

The map above gives the location and rank of each PCA that has been identified by CNHP in Colorado. An area shown in pink, given the rank of B1, surrounds species that are deemed to have outstanding levels of biodiversity significance. These are highly important areas for conservation and contain Colorado's rarest or most imperiled species. Orange sites given a rank of B5 on the other hand, hold species of more general biodiversity significance, likely containing communities that are healthy and relatively abundant in the state.

This map helps focus conservation efforts by ranking areas of biodiversity significance that may be currently unprotected. Areas given a higher ranking such as B1 or B2, are higher priority for conservation. However, to add another layer of information to this idea, our team wanted to find how much anthropogenic, or human, disturbance has taken place in each of these areas.

The first thing the team did was use the location and rank information from each of Colorado's PCAs and combine it with a landscape disturbance index (LDI) dataset. The LDI dataset contains information about a type of disturbance that has been created and that disturbance type's severity level.
distance decay curves used in the LDI model.
Distance decay curves used to determine the disturbance range of each anthropogenic activity
(reproduced from Rondeau et al. 2011)

Above, you can see the distance decay curves that were used as part of the LDI dataset. Each curve is associated with one of the nine types of mappable anthropogenic disturbance. The curve assigns an impact weight, the amount of disturbance created, over a distance to each type of disturbance activity. Some activities have a further reaching effects than others. For example, low intensity urban development has an initial impact weight of 300, however it still creates some level of disturbance up to 2000 meters away. Agriculture on the other hand, also carries an initial impact weight of 300, but its furthest reaching effects end at 500 meters.
Anthropogenic disturbance in Colorado displayed on a color scale ranging from green to red (CNHP 2016). Green denotes undisturbed areas. Red denotes highly disturbed areas. The PCAs that were the focus of this study are highlighted in various colors.

In general, areas along the Front Range and the eastern plains of Colorado have experienced the greatest amounts of anthropogenic disturbance. This is due to the high population density along the Front Range and eastern Colorado's agricultural activity. From the Rocky Mountains westward, there are much lower level of disturbance in the state. A major factor of this is the ruggedness of the terrain. Mountain areas are less accessible to people and have lower population density. Many mountain areas may also currently have some level of protection surrounding them, such as a state or national forest.

Having this new information about the level of disturbance an area experiences, allows conservation efforts to be balanced. While a B1 area may have greater biodiversity significance than a B2 area, it is possible that the B2 area is experiencing a greater amount of anthropogenic disturbance and therefore may be considered a higher priority for conservation.

Through our analysis, we identified the most and least disturbed B1 PCAs in the state. In the above map, you can see an area in western Colorado highlighted in blue. This area is the Colorado River PCA. It is a B1 PCA and home to the endangered Colorado pikeminnow, humpback chub, and razorback sucker. It is the most disturbed B1 PCA in Colorado primarily due to its proximity to the I-70 urban corridor. Not addressed in the LDI are additional significant impacts, such as the large amount of agricultural water diversion used for irrigation. Water diversions use dams and canals to draw water out of the river.

In contrast, Colorado's Hankins Gulch, located in central Colorado and shown in pink, is the least disturbed B1 PCA in the state. The area has a minimum elevation of 8,305 ft., meaning the mountainous terrain puts this area out of reach for many activities and land uses. Additionally, motorized vehicle usage is also prohibited within the area, further reducing accessibility to the area for most people. Hankins Gulch receives its B1 PCA status because it is home to the critically imperiled budding monkeyflower (Mimulus gemmiparus).

While this was just one example of the scope at which human disturbance can affect a PCA, identifying areas in Colorado that are heavily disturbed by humans is an important step in prioritizing conservation efforts in order to most effectively protect Colorado's biodiversity. For more information, please follow this link to an interactive Story Map created about the project.

Special thanks to Michelle Fink and David Anderson of CNHP for their contributions and guidance with this project.
CNHP. 2016. Landscape Disturbance Index Layer for Colorado. Edition 12_2016. Raster digital data. Colorado Natural Heritage Program, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO.

Rondeau, R., K. Decker, J. Handwerk, J. Siemers, L. Grunau, and C. Pague. 2011. The state of Colorado's biodiversity 2011. Prepared for The Nature Conservancy. Colorado Natural Heritage Program, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado.