31 March 2008

Conservation the New Focus for Management of a Short-grass Prairie Tract in Colorado

A recent purchase of a large ranch in east-central Colorado will provide a unique opportunity to manage an extensive area of short-grass prairie - with riparian areas and playa-wetlands - for the benefit of a large variety of flora and fauna.

In March, The Nature Conservancy purchased for $10.3 million, the 23,300-acre Smith Ranch in Lincoln County, which was transferred to the Colorado State Land Board to create a 49,061-acre working cattle ranch in conjunction with adjacent holdings already owned by the state agency.

"Members of the recently formed Central Shortgrass Prairie Partnership are excited that the project will help conserve hundreds of playa lakes which are critical for migratory birds, particularly waterfowl," according to a TNC press release. The playas are also home for the Plains Leopard frog, with streams providing "excellent habitat" for the tiny Arkansas Darter fish.

"The conservation of the Smith Ranch provides significant opportunities to conserve this prairie gem teeming with at least 218 playas" said Mike Carter, coordinator of the Playa Lakes Joint Venture. "Playa lakes may be the most important wetland habitat type for waterfowl in the region hosting up to 20 species during winter and migration season."

Additional funding of $828,000 for the project was recently awarded to The Nature Conservancy by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, through the North American Wetlands Conservation Act. Funding is for conservation and management of 1,903 acres of outstanding playa and wetland resources at the 49,236 acre Steel's Fork project site.

"Protection and restoration of this ranch will contribute significantly to the migration, wintering and breeding needs of priority migratory birds in all four of the National Bird Plans as well as other wetland-dependent species," said the FWS summary for the grant.

[Riparian and wetland area at Steel's Fork ranch]

Riparian and wetland area. All photographs courtesy of Chris Pague, TNC.

[Head of a creek at Steel's Fork Ranch]

Head of creek in the summer showing a no-grazing condition.

"The more than 200 playas in this, the western part of their prairie distribution, are dry most of the time," said Frogard Ryan, Central Front Range Grasslands Project Director for The Nature Conservancy. "After big rains they fill and suddenly support an unbelievable number of amphibians, invertebrates, and of course birds. When the filled playas correspond with spring or fall migration, they can host dozens of species of birds in large numbers. These playas are now managed to assure that wildlife benefits in addition to livestock.

"Burrowing owls and mountain plovers will be a focus of the ranch's management. These species are relatively common on the ranch and we want to see that they have the opportunity to always thrive here."

Additional changes in management, Ryan said, will be beneficial to migratory and nesting birds:

  • About 2,000 acres of riparian area and wetlands formerly used mostly by foraging cattle will now benefit birds as well as the livestock. These areas will be fenced to increase plant diversity as well as woody vegetation.
  • Restoring a playa wetland that had been dug-out and used as a cattle tank.
  • Removal of old ranch material from 12 acres of wetland and riparian area.
  • Changing the grazing regime to increase the height of grassland cover, making prairie areas more useful to Grasshopper Sparrows and Lark Buntings.

"While assuring that our legal obligations are met for water management, there is considerable flexibility in when water levels are raised and lowered in 2 small reservoirs," Ryan said. "These reservoirs will be managed to maximize the benefits to shorebirds, waterfowl, marsh birds, and wading birds. During migration there are hundreds of ducks, geese, coots, white pelicans, and other species that use these lakes."

"The ranch has populations of Northern Pintail, Mallard, Lesser Scaup, American Wigeon, Redheads, and will provide benefits for at least 12 NAWCA priority species including Western Grebe, American White Pelican, Sandhill Crane, Long-billed Curlew, Red-headed Woodpecker and Yellow-headed Blackbird, as well as at least 44 additional priority species from existing national and PLJV plans," according to the NAWCA grant summary.

"This is an exciting opportunity," the TNC press release said, "to manage a landscape with concrete goals that will result in a sustainable ranching operation that also demonstrably achieves conservation success for many bird species that depend on changes in management like those proposed on the Steel's Fork Ranch."

The management plan will be developed through a cooperative effort of the Colorado State Land Board, TNC, a representative from the agricultural community, with assistance from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and other experts.

The Steel's Fork tract "will be run according to a management plan for the working ranch to co-exist with ways to showcase Lincoln County as recreation and wildlife destination."

"The State Land Board is proud of this opportunity to demonstrate how ranching and conservation can work together for future generations," said Britt Weygandt, Director of the Colorado State Land Board.

"The nearby Bohart Ranch is a model that works with a similar framework and has been a successful cow/calf operation," according to the Conservancy. "The Bohart Ranch easily made the switch from private ownership to public ownership and is now under management by a local ranching family."

TNC has a 25-year conservation oriented management lease on the Bohart ranch, according to the group's press release.

Project partners will restore habitats to establish a "welcome mat" for species that depend on healthy wetlands and riparian areas.

"I am deeply grateful to the many local ranching families who have worked and treasured the prairie," said Ryan. "As a result of their hard work we have one of the most intact regions of prairie on the Western High Plains where conservation and ranching objectives are compatible. I look forward to learning from neighbors and residents about the area and exploring collaborative opportunities that will benefit the community, ranching and nature."

Within two years, The Nature Conservancy will establish an easement to prevent any future development on the recently purchased ranch.

"The 23,389 acre perpetual conservation easement will protect the portion of the ranch containing the majority of the Steel's Fork drainage including ca. 50 playas covering ca. 235 acres, ca. 13 stream miles, ca. 1,058 acres of marshes, other emergent wetlands, spring fed wet meadows, two reservoirs and three ponds," said the FWS grant summary. "The wetlands are intermixed with ca. 22,096 acres of native prairie that has never been converted to cropland."

A management lease option will provide complete management control to TNC. The State Land Board will contribute a six-month lease for a planning and restoration period. TNC will then acquire a 25-year management lease, according to the FWS grant application.

TNC will then sublease the agricultural management to a ranching family, according to the press release.

[Shortgrass prairie at Steel's Fork ranch]

Shortgrass prairie area.

[Steel's Fork reservoir area]

Upper reservoir area at Steel's Fork Ranch.

The Steel's Fork site, according to the TNC, "is the Eastern anchor in the Peak to Prairie project, an ambitious effort being undertaken by Colorado Open Lands and The Nature Conservancy, with support and participation of numerous local and state agencies and organizations, to conserve and link a landscape stretching from Cheyenne Mountain across the plains of eastern Colorado. The vision is to conserve this large intact prairie landscape, maintain military and agricultural uses and keep historic ranches intact while also conserving critical plant and animal habitat and providing extensive opportunities for recreational access."

New partners involved with the NAWCA portion of the project include the Colorado State Land Board, Sanborn Duck Club, Cheyenne Zoo, Tax Credit Connection (TCC), Hunter White Foundation, and Denver Botanical Gardens.

"The Sanborn Duck Club, formed in 1925, represents a group of 20 families from Colorado Springs," said TNC press release. "The Cheyenne Zoo, TCC and the private donors feel the project will provide benefits to their supporters and catalyze local efforts to place lands under conservation easements."

Additional partners, which did not providing matching funds were the Colorado State Land Board, Fish and Wildlife Service, Natural Resource Conservation Service, and Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory.

Extensive benefits for the public - identified by the federal grant application - as a result of this project include:

"Science staff will use the ranch as a model for grazing and wetlands management and share those lessons throughout their network. Downstream ranchers will benefit from better managed waterways which provide better sediment and flood control. The ranch will remain a working cattle ranch which is critical to the economy and culture of the area. The hunting community will benefit from access to high quality waterfowl habitat and the improved health of local waterfowl populations. The SLB and TNC will make the ranch available for school field trips, hunting and educational outreach efforts; the Sanborn Duck Club has been hunting the ranch since 1925 and plans to continue using the parcel for hunting outings and gatherings, as well as provide waterfowl monitoring. TNC is also pursuing including the property into an emerging Birding Trail project by RMBO, which is an effort to create local eco-tourism economic activity such as in nearby Lamar."

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