The Crestone Eagle, November 2006:

The Crestone/Baca Land Trust: Preserving ecosystems and protecting wildlife
by Kim Malville

During the summer of ‘05 the Crestone/Baca Land Trust commissioned a biological survey of the Baca by the Colorado Natural Heritage Program of Colorado State University. The survey, directed by John Sovell, a zoologist at Colorado State University, has provided us with facts to guide the planning efforts of the community in protecting our local ecosystem and protecting wildlife. An earlier survey by CNHP was the definitive study of the SLV closed basin, and this one promises to be equally important for the Baca.

It seems that the incredibly rich and diverse landscape of the Baca is under siege, with once-empty lots now burdened with houses and too many cars driving across riparian corridors. Like many mountain communities, we run the risk of destroying the land and its biology that we love.

Now, the specter of drilling by Lexam has produced the greatest threat of them all. As a result of our survey, we have a clue about the biological communities in the wildlife refuge that will be disrupted by trucks, roads, drilling noise, and punching through the aquifer. Closest to the drilling site is the pond that usually forms during summer months at the crossing of Camino del Rey and Spanish Creek. It is a remarkably rich biological habitat, with Brazilian free-tailed bats, tiger salamanders, chorus frogs, mountain plover, Wilson’s phalaropes, and a local subspecies of the northern pocket gopher.

The CNHP biologists discourage development adjacent to this pond and its surrounding wetland. Human presence could have disastrous consequences on its fragile ecosystem. Judging from algae bloom in the waters, there already is some pollution in its waters, probably by up-stream septic systems. Specifically, the report discourages additional septic systems in the area unless there can be guarantees that they will not pollute the streams.

Using mist nets, John Sovell found Brazilian free-tailed bats near the pond. These bats are extremely rare with only 17 recorded occurrences. In Saguache County, there are three records for Brazilian free-tailed bat populations, and one is from the Baca. The Brazilian free-tailed bat commonly roosts in caves and mines and is very social, with huge nursery colonies. The colony at the Orient Mine has an estimated population of as many as 250,000 individuals and is the largest colony in Colorado. The bats found in the Baca were probably foraging individuals from the Orient Mine, making this wetland an important source of food and water for the colony.

The Brazilian free-tailed bat moves far beyond the Baca and travels south to Mexico and Central America for the winter. Populations of the Brazilian free-tailed bat are thought to be in decline, a decline apparently caused by disease, pesticide poisoning, and human disturbance of nursery colonies. These bats are truly our friends, as they feed on mosquitoes, as well as moths, flying ants, and beetles.

The corridor of Spanish Creek contains one of the narrowleaf cottonwood and Rocky Mountain juniper woodland communities of the Baca. We need to be careful stewards of these rare communities, as they are imperiled in Colorado where there are only 38 recorded occurrences in the country. Future residential development and road construction run the risk of compromising the health of these unique woodlands.

During the summer of ‘05 a new population of the Rio Grande chub was found by John Alves of Colorado DOW in the Baca in a ditch associated with South Crestone Creek. In addition to this chub, a population of the Rio Grande sucker was also recorded from the same locale. The Rio Grande chub and Rio Grande sucker are globally vulnerable and are extremely rare fishes, which are listed as species of concern by the State of Colorado and are on the Forest Service and BLM sensitive species list. These rare fishes may be present in the area of the NWR (National Wildlife Refuge) that is proposed for drilling.

There are nine subspecies of northern pocket gopher found in Colorado. One of the subspecies, with only six recorded sightings in the state, is narrowly distributed in the San Luis Valley, north and east of the Rio Grande. Fresh diggings of this subspecies are sparsely scattered along the lower riparian areas of the Baca, which offers an outstanding opportunity to support the continued viability of this population by preserving suitable habitat in its present form. You may not be enthralled with gophers when they are in your lawn, but they play important roles in aerating the soil and improve its capacity to hold water.

Within the Baca, the riparian communities along all four creeks sustain a wealth of biological diversity including a community of riparian woodland birds, butterflies, and small animals. The diversity that the CNHP study confirmed suggests that the riparian hydrology is mostly intact and functioning. (But for how long?) Pronghorn and elk currently occupy the Baca, but their continued viability will require maintaining large corridors of connectivity between the Baca and public lands to the west. Large open areas, especially in the Grants, must also be left undisturbed to provide areas for the pronghorn and elk to browse and graze.

Ultimately the health of our land comes down to healthy arteries, those all important riparian corridors and woodland communities, which allow movement of animals and clean water. Clog those arteries with houses, cars, dogs, and people and the patient will die.