Watershed-Wide Study Aims To Protect Wildlife’s Homes

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A watershed-wide study that begins this summer focuses on identifying the best habitat for elk, deer and bighorn sheep. Credit: Courtesy of Will Cardamone.

EMMA — Tom Cardamone’s house in Emma pulses with life: Songbirds flutter and donkeys roam outside, and inside, Tut, a desert tortoise, creeps; Frodo, the macaw, screeches, and Cardamone’s grandson runs from room to room.

Cardamone is executive director of the Watershed Biodiversity Initiative, a nonprofit he founded in hopes of protecting all the life that calls the Roaring Fork Valley home.

“Without a home, without a place to live, your life is over,” he said.

Cardamone says we need more information about our home. While major global concerns such as climate change and extinctions loom, local land managers are making decisions about how to use open spaces.

The Roaring Fork watershed runs from Independence Pass to Glenwood Springs. Credit: Courtesy of Tom Cardamone, Watershed Biodiversity Initiative

Best available science

In 2016, Pitkin County Open Space and Trails adopted a policy to use the “best available science” to protect biodiversity on its properties. Cardamone wants to make better science available, because he says there’s not yet enough research to account for the variety of life in the watershed.

“There are hundreds of birds, scores of mammal species and uncountable insect species, plant species in the thousands,” he said.

Scientists can’t study each one. Instead, in a landscape-wide study that starts this summer, researchers will focus on a few who have similar needs: elk, deer and bighorn sheep.

“They all need intact and connected landscapes to survive,” said Dave Anderson, director of the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, the state’s premier biodiversity research organization. “They need to be able to access different habitat seasonally. And if they can’t do that, then their populations are going to dwindle and disappear.”

Anderson will be overseeing the analysis of a million acres in the Roaring Fork Valley and identifying the highest-priority areas to protect for wildlife. The scientists will focus on the wide-ranging mammals to build understanding of the health of the entire ecosystem.

“They’re the best way to identify big swaths of habitat, with the assumption that you’re capturing a lot of other species that may also be diminishing that we know nothing about,” Cardamone said.

For example, the numbers of pollinators such as bees and butterflies are dwindling across the country. Pollinators are essential to ecosystem function and food production, and while they aren’t a focus of the Watershed Biodiversity Study, Cardamone is hopeful that it will benefit them nonetheless.

“By saving big swaths of habitat and the native plant life, we’re giving pollinators a place to be,” he said.

Bighorn sheep stand on a cliff in the Fryingpan valley. Bighorns are one of three focal species in a new study aimed at identifying the best remaining habitat in the Roaring Fork watershed. Credit: Elizabeth Stewart-Severy

Conservation connection

Preserving habitat is about more than a few species. Delia Malone, a local ecologist who works with the Colorado Natural Heritage Program but not on this project, says conservation is essential to protecting not only the very big and the very small creatures — but also everything in between.

“Really, we’re all connected. Every single part, whether we understand it or not, every single life is connected to another, and it’s those connections that make the world function as a place that supports life,” Malone said.

One way to keep those connections intact is to apply basic urban-planning principles.

“Don’t sprawl, don’t fragment,” Malone said. “Keep the large chunks of existing habitat intact.”

In the Watershed Biodiversity Study, Anderson and his team will identify the large, undisturbed areas that are most important to elk, deer and bighorn sheep, and they will also search for ways to connect those places.

But Anderson said that preserving the best habitat for a few species isn’t enough, ultimately, to ensure success for all. Some plants and animals can survive only in highly specialized places.

“Some species are only going to live in a certain kind of wetland or along a certain kind of rock outcrop, and if we conserve corridors for wildlife, we’re not necessarily capturing all of those places,” he said.

Over the next two years, the Watershed Biodiversity study will piece together a panorama of the local ecosystem. It leaves the door open to zoom in a little closer and truly understand the range of life in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Aspen Journalism is collaborating with Aspen Public Radio to produce a series of stories centered on local biodiversity and efforts to identify the Roaring Fork Valley’s best remaining wild lands for our wild creatures.

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