DOVE CREEK, Colo. — Good habitat is the key for maintaining wildlife populations. So Colorado Parks and Wildlife is working in western Colorado to restore abandoned farmland and other areas back to a natural condition.
On a freezing November morning on the western edge of Colorado, Ryan Lane, a CPW wildlife technician, drove an open tractor back and forth across a 400-acre expanse of the Coalbed Canyon State Wildlife Area. The tractor pulled a specialized planter, known as a no-till drill that pushed seeds from 30 different native plants into the dry soil. Late fall is a good time for planting these types of seeds ‒ with snow and rain usually reliable at this time of year getting the seed down ahead of moisture is ideal.
Since 2014, CPW has been working aggressively in several areas throughout western Colorado to plant native seeds on: old farmland, state wildlife areas, state trust lands and areas burned in fires. Since 2015, the agency has planted on about 7,500 acres for restoration and on another 10,000 acres of areas burned in forest fires, explained Trevor Balzer, CPW’s sagebrush and mountain-shrub habitat coordinator.
One of those areas is the 2,800-acre Coalbed Canyon State Wildlife Area in southwest Colorado. In the areas level enough to plant, the parcel produced beans and wheat for decades. To accommodate agricultural crops, however, the land was stripped of sagebrush and other native plants that supported multiple species of wildlife, including the Gunnison Sage-grouse, mule deer, elk, multiple species of birds and small mammals.
Before CPW’s ownership, the fields were abandoned and planted with a fast-growing non-native grass that does not provide much value to wildlife. So in 2016, CPW started the long restoration process. The area was treated to kill the non-native grass and the planting process started. Planting in areas like Coalbed Canyon, however, can be frustrating because of dry weather conditions.
Seeds planted in the fall of 2015 and 2016 received adequate moisture, sprouted and became established. But extremely dry and hot weather followed the fall planting of 2017 and seeds did not do well in 2018. Consequently, those areas are being seeded again.
Wet conditions last spring were favorable for getting seeds to take hold, Balzer said.
CPW plants native seeds using the “no-till” method. The land is not plowed so the roots of the native existing grasses hold soil in place. New seeds are planted among the remaining vegetation.
A key to reclamation efforts is CPW’s native seed warehouse in Delta that was completed in 2012. CPW and other agencies collect seeds of native plants, mostly on the Uncompahgre Plateau west of Montrose, and ship them to commercial growers in the northwest U.S. Those businesses specialize in native plant propagation and then harvest thousands of pounds of seed in amounts that cannot be collected in the wild. The seed is shipped to CPW’s climate-controlled warehouse where it is stored and distributed as needed.
“With large amounts of seed available we can take on large-scale seeding projects,” said Jim Garner, manager of the warehouse. “The warehouse allows us to provide locally adapted plant varieties to Western Slope land managers who are conducting habitat improvement projects.”
A mixture of seed from the warehouse was dropped by airplane last spring over more than 5,000 acres of the Bull Draw fire area near Nucla. That fire burned during the summer of 2018. An inspection of the area in the fall showed that native plants have started to grow.
Balzer explained that the availability of seeds of native forbs – broad-leafed flowering plants – and shrubs are especially important for reclamation efforts.
“Those weren’t readily available on the market before we had the warehouse,” he said. “They’re critical because they provide diverse food sources for all wildlife in the area. When these plants flower they attract a wide variety of insects which help to spread the plants over large areas of the landscape and restore broader habitat function.”
The planting on the 400-acre plot at Coalbed Canyon has been difficult because of wet and cold weather that hit in mid-November. That planting should be completed early in 2020 and plans are already in place to plant a 200-acre parcel next year.
Across the Western Slope, Balzer wants to stay the course of reclaiming about 1,500 acres per year. Even though that’s a small amount of acreage in a vast landscape, biologists know that their work will impact areas far beyond the individual plots.
“Getting native plants established in these areas is not easy,” Balzer said. “The process is slow and native
shrubs take many years to mature. But revisiting a successfully restored site is extremely rewarding.”