by Matie Belle Lakish

Southwest Willow Flycatcher, Yellow Billed Cuckoo, Gunnison Sage Grouse, and now Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout. Do species become Threatened and Endangered in Saguache County because of poor conservation practices, or is it because we are one of the last frontiers for many plants and animals? In a county where 76% of our territory is public lands, the latter is likely the case. Whatever the reason, Saguache County’s landowners, public officials, and public lands managers find themselves in a predicament: either find ways to protect sensitive species that will be acceptable to federal agencies charged with protecting wildlife, or live with the consequences of sometimes severe federal restrictions on private property to protect species.

To help find solutions to this dilemma, Saguache County Commissioners called together representatives from most of the agencies and public organizations that work to protect wildlife locally to collaborate with the county on protecting species that are likely to be listed as Threatened or Endangered in the near future. The coalition, the Wildlife and Habitat Strategic Committee, met for the first time on January 15, and the county hosted representatives from local Fish and Wildlife Service, Great Sand Dunes National Park, National Forest and BLM, Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), SLV Conservation

District, and Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife, as well as other interested parties. Jennie Nearing and two landowners represented the county’s efforts to preserve the Gunnison Sage Grouse.

Commissioner Linda Joseph, who chaired the meeting, described the collaborative efforts of ten counties to preserve habitat and populations of the Gunnison Sage Grouse, which is currently being considered for listing as Threatened or Endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The service is under pressure from national environmental groups to make the listing. If listed, private landowners and local public lands agencies would be restricted in what they could do with their land, as federal regulators would begin making the decisions. Local landowners and agencies have observed that decisions made in Washington don’t often make sense on the ground, either in protecting the species or in terms of private landowners’ land-use interests. However, many landowners are becoming willing to make serious efforts to protect species in collaboration with other landowners and local agencies. For instance, a Habitat Conservation Plan developed to protect the Southwest Willow Flycatcher habitat along critical waterways in the San Luis Valley seems to be working fairly well. Joseph has reported the positive experience she has had working with other counties to preserve the Gunnison Sage Grouse. The plan developed by the Gunnison Sage Grouse Strategic Committee has now gone to the feds for approval. If the local plan is approved, it will be a landmark effort to provide a local solution for species protection, and is being watched carefully by agencies in a ten-state area that anticipate a potential Threatened or Endangered Species Listing for the Greater Sage Grouse.

Jennie Nearing reported that Gunnison Sage Grouse are being transplanted back into historic habitat south of Poncha Pass, with the cooperation of private landowners. Fifteen young birds were transplanted in the fall. So far, there have been two mortalities related to power lines and one mortality for no obvious reason. They are hopeful that the other 12 are still doing well and will begin to breed in the spring. Other transplants are planned for the spring.

Besides discussion around Sage Grouse issues, Laura Archuleta with the FS/BLM Environmental Contaminant Program talked about the positive experience of working collaboratively with landowners to clean up Kerber Creek. Visitors to the Bonanza area may remember when the creek was a dead zone with copper-red water running for miles down the canyon. It was fouled with toxic mine waste from the Bonanza mining days. Over the last decade, with the help and collaboration of private landowners and public agencies, as well as VISTA volunteers, the creek has been returned to a much more natural state that can support fish and other wildlife.

Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife representatives Rick Basagoitia, Area Wildlife Manager, and Jason Surface, Wildlife Officer for the Saguache District, discussed their plans for protecting the Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout, another troubled species. Sometimes good intentions go awry. For years, wildlife officers stocked non-native Brook and Rainbow trout to improve fisheries. However the species began to outcompete and interbreed with native Cutthroats until the purebred natives are now in danger. Other factors affecting the populations include the drought, which has dried up smaller streams that the Cutthroats use for breeding, and ash flows from fires in the area. Basagoitia and Surface said plans are being developed to remove the non-natives from certain SLV streams and restock with fairly pure Cutthroats. Surface said very few purebred Cutthroats are available to use for fish stocks at this point.  The plan, which is on the Parks and Wildlife website, has six steps: 1)Monitor and look for new populations that can be used for genetic material 2)Secure native populations and remove other competing species 3) Restoration of historic stream sites 4)Protect habitat 5)Educate the public, and 6)Maintain a database of populations in Colorado and New Mexico. So far, streams identified for restocking are all on the western side of the valley, although Fred Bunch of the Great Sand Dunes National Park said there are similar plans for Sand Creek on the eastern side. Treatment of streams will involve building temporary dams to hold back stream water, treating the dammed areas with Rotenone, a naturally occurring insecticide that also kills fish by denying oxygen, then with Potassium Permanganate. This will remove competing species, and then streams will be restocked with Cutthroat trout stocks. This will take several years to complete, and habitat restoration will be an important part of the plan. Basagoitia reports that the species will be considered for Threatened and Endangered listing in September. He said he is not sure what advantage that would have, as they are already doing everything possible to protect the Cutthroat as it is.

Coyotes was another topic that has generated interest this year. Coyotes have become so abundant and bothersome to livestock that the County has placed a $5 bounty on the creatures. Basagoitia mentioned that studies now show that shooting and trapping the animals has little long-term impact on their numbers. Apparently, like their chief prey, rabbits, they increase or decrease their breeding to fit conditions.

Other topics and species being studied in the county include: bats and white nose disease; Rocky Mountain Sheep and wild turkey transplants by FWS; elk, bison and bears by Great Sand Dunes NP; grazing plans, timber management and landscape-scale fire by Forest Service; solar, weeds, and outfitting by BLM; and, closer to home, the Baca National Wildlife Refuge Management Plan and conservation easements by the local wildlife refuges. Laura Archuleta mentioned a new study on pharmaceuticals in drinking water, which could have implications for the Baca.

Joseph asked for consensus on future meetings, and a decision was made to meet quarterly, with working groups on various topics meeting in between. Agency representatives expressed satisfaction with the meeting. Mike Blenden, Director of the local fish and wildlife refuges, said, “I appreciate Saguache County having an interest in wildlife. It doesn’t happen everywhere.”