SLVEC NEWS

Find the latest updates on all the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Counci's projects

The San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council has stayed busy this year with a variety of conservation projects! All of our campaigns recognize the importance of maintaining intact, healthy wilderness so that future human and non-human species can thrive! Check out the many ways SLVEC has worked to protect YOUR public lands this 2021. You can also watch a video summarizing the contents below.



1) The Rio Grande

Central to the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council’s mission is to protect and restore the biological diversity, ecosystems, and natural resources in the Upper Rio Grande. In line with these values, SLVEC is currently working to inform policies that grant long-term protection to the Rio Grande Corridor in Colorado’s Conejos and Costilla Counties. Collecting critical baseline inventory data, developing informative maps, publishing reports, and communicating the ecological and cultural value of this region to the public are all strategies that SLVEC is employing to support recommendations for the region as a National Conservation Area. If our efforts are successful, 8,000 years of human history will be protected as well as the critical habitats, native plants, endangered species and wildlife that this unique area supports.

Read our blog on this campaign.


2) Wildlife Corridors

In company with numerous environmental groups across the nation, SLVEC has pledged to support and develop policies that work towards a goal of protecting 30% of U.S. lands and water by the year 2030: #30x30Movement. Supporting efforts that ensure that wildlife corridors are available to resident and migratory species is one way that we honor this pledge. We recently sent out an action alert, of which many of our members responded to, asking for public comments to be submitted in favor of a new county resolution to support migration corridors and wildlife habitat in Saguache County. SLVEC was thrilled to receive overwhelming support from many of our members who feel this movement would help us to mitigate the impacts of climate change, improve road safety, and protect wildlife. SLVEC will continue to advocate on the state and federal level until we feel adequate policy has been adopted in this area.


3) Wilderness Designation

SLVEC has submitted almost two dozen recommendations for wilderness/special use areas/ research designations in the Southern Rockies. Unfortunately, the forest service dismissed many of these recommendations. SLVEC is disappointed with the final Rio Grande National Forest’s fifteen-year revision plan Record of Decision (ROD) as we believe it fails to adequately protect critical habitats and species, specifically within the San Juan Mountains. This includes, but is not limited to, the critically endangered Uncompahgre fritillary butterfly and threatened Canadian lynx. SLVEC recently filed a lawsuit alongside the Wilderness Society, San Juan Citizens Alliance, Wild Earth Guardians, and the Western Environmental Law Center, against the Rio Grande National Forest’s New Land Management Plan. View the official press release here.


4) Wolf Creek Pass

Home to rare fen wetlands, the threatened Canadian lynx, intact wilderness, and valuable natural resources, SLVEC has fought to protect the Wolf Creek Pass area from development for decades. Environmental groups are outraged by the longstanding proposal to put a massive “village” in the middle of pristine wilderness, #nopillage. SLVEC and allies at Friends of Wolf Creek have rallied to keep this project at a stand still for nearly 30 years. We now await the latest court ruling that will reveal whether or not the developers have been granted access to US Forest Service lands so that the project can move forward. Read the most recent update on this lawsuit and get a more in depth background on this campaign here.




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Updated: Nov 9


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contacts: Katie Arberg, Defenders of Wildlife, 202-772-0259, karberg@defenders.org

Christine Canaly, San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, 719-256-4758, info@slvec.org

John Mellgren, Western Environmental Law Center, 541-359-0990, mellgren@westernlaw.org

Adam Rissien, WildEarth Guardians, 406-370-3147, arissien@wildearthguardians.org



Conservation Groups Unite to Protect Threatened Species in Colorado

Lawsuits filed against the Rio Grande National Forest’s New Land Management Plan

Denver, Colo. (November 8, 2021) – Today, Defenders of Wildlife, The Wilderness Society, the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, San Juan Citizens Alliance, WildEarth Guardians and the Western Environmental Law Center filed two lawsuits against the United States Forest Service over its newly revised land management plan for the Rio Grande National Forest. Over the past six years, conservation groups provided science-based recommendations and concrete solutions for protecting species and their diverse habitats in the Forest. But in the face of these needed steps, the Forest Service’s plan slashes protections for the threatened Canada lynx and the endangered Uncompahgre fritillary butterfly in violation of the Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act and the Forest Service’s own regulations.

The lawsuit filed by Defenders of Wildlife challenges the rollback of critical protections for lynx habitat in the Rio Grande National Forest. The Canada lynx relies heavily on the Rio Grande National Forest in the Southern Rocky Mountains, which contains more than half the locations in Colorado where lynx are consistently found. But the population is in dire straits, and federal scientists predict that the lynx may disappear from Colorado altogether within a matter of decades. The Forest Service’s new plan has now opened the extremely important lynx habitat in the forest to logging, one of the biggest threats to the cat.

“Scientists are saying the Canada lynx population in the Rio Grande National Forest is in the ‘emergency room,’ but the Forest Service refuses to provide this species with the care it needs,” said Lauren McCain, senior policy analyst for Defenders of Wildlife. “It’s baffling that the Forest Service chose to weaken protections for lynx on the forest. They left us no option but to sue to help recover the species in the Southern Rockies.”

The lawsuit filed by The Wilderness Society, the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, San Juan Citizens Alliance, WildEarth Guardians, and the Western Environmental Law Center challenges the forest plan’s failure to adequately protect habitat for species including the Uncompahgre fritillary butterfly, or to regulate recreational uses appropriately. The Rio Grande National Forest is also home to five of the 11 colonies of critically endangered Uncompahgre fritillary butterfly. The species can only be found fluttering above 12,000 feet and in just a small area of Colorado. Despite identifying threats to the species, including trampling by humans and livestock and climate change, the Rio Grande’s revised forest plan fails to do anything specific to protect this species, much less contribute to its recovery.

In addition, the plan missed a key opportunity to connect important habitat areas so species can move from summer to winter habitat, and to assure that recreation avoids key habitat areas. Both of these factors are crucial to ecological and resource protection.

“This plan encourages a crisis-management response,” said Christine Canaly, director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council. “After years of public meeting participation, providing substantive comments and reviewing hundreds of letters from concerned citizens – who clearly support the management of healthy forests, ecosystem services, and protection of critical habitat – the Final Forest Plan instead renders a hands-off approach, abdicating responsibility for providing upfront baseline analysis. Standards and guidelines have been removed, leading to less comprehensive, more reactive decision making.

“The Rio Grande Revised Forest Plan took a completely wrong turn by omitting protections for a range of imperiled species,” said Adam Rissien, ReWilding advocate with WildEarth Guardians. “We were hopeful the Forest Service would have reversed course, but this plan still fails to restore or maintain habitat, not only for Canada lynx, but also the Rio Grande cutthroat trout, river otter, western bumblebee, bighorn sheep and the endangered Uncompahgre fritillary butterfly.”

“The Rio Grande National Forest finalized an incredibly inadequate plan that fails to protect the values of the forest we all know and love, like important wildlife habitat and opportunities for people and families to enjoy our shared public lands,” says Jim Ramey, Colorado state director for The Wilderness Society. “Unfortunately, the Forest Service ignored years of community input and scientific analysis, resulting in a plan that doesn’t work hard enough for us to hand down a healthy forest for future Coloradans. We must hold the Forest Service to a higher standard for protecting critical wildlife corridors like Spruce Hole and Wolf Creek Pass. The Forest Service should prioritize locally-driven, conservation-focused plans to help us meet the national goal to protect 30% of lands and waters by 2030.”

“New Forest Service rules gave Rio Grande National Forest managers the chance to vastly improve how they oversee the many uses of these important public lands,” said John Mellgren, general counsel at the Western Environmental Law Center. “Rather than seizing the opportunity to restore ecological integrity to these lands, the Forest Service instead ignored unambiguous requirements for ensuring the sustainability of our national forests.”

The Rio Grande National Forest is a 1.8-million-acre gem in the middle of southern Colorado and includes the headwaters of its namesake river. The forest boasts a diversity of ecosystems from lower-elevation sagebrush and grasslands to the dominant high-elevation spruce-fir forest and fragile alpine areas. Proper management of this expansive area is key to preserving critical habitat and biodiversity in the Southern Rockies and to buffering against the stresses our native wildlife are experiencing from climate change.


“The Rio Grande National Forest incorporates much of Colorado’s most important wildlife habitat, and some of our state’s largest expanses of wild and undeveloped habitat,” said Mark Pearson, executive director at San Juan Citizens Alliance. “The public deserves a management plan for the next 20 years that we can count on for protecting the very essence of the Rio Grande National Forest.”

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There is profound power in two orange, iron incisors that never stop growing. Beaver teeth are as strong as steel, allowing them to chop down entire trees, haul around piles of debris, and build durable dams capable of completely transforming an environment. Beavers are known as ecosystem engineers and keystone species because of the numerous and beneficial services they offer to enhance ecology, hydrology, and biodiversity in a region.


Additionally, contemporary data is now suggesting that beavers play a critical role in combating drought, wildfires, wetland degradation, and other symptoms of climate change.


In the 2021 Colorado Beaver Summit, ecohydrologist Dr. Emily Fairfax explained just how effective beavers are at protecting our landscapes against drought and wildfires. Dam building is a beaver’s first task when settling a habitat and is key to nourishing the surrounding area. Their dams slow the movement of water, allowing it to saturate the region’s soils and even seep down into the earth and recharge groundwater. Dam building both creates a moister habitat for neighboring wildlife and vegetation and it also slows evaporation rates, transforming a narrow creek bed into a thriving wetland ecosystem.


Furthermore, beavers don’t just build dams; they also dig canals that connect surface water to the surrounding soils. Dr. Fairfax shares that this behavior is a survival mechanism, since beavers are quite awkward on land and prefer to travel by water as much as possible. Therefore, beavers dig trenches around their habitat that fill with water and allow them to swim from place to place. The unintended consequence of such behavior is that neighboring soil and vegetation are fed fresh water, as if hydrated by a drip irrigation system. A wetter, more diverse environment that extends beyond a beaver’s dam, results.


Beavers Manage Drought


In Colorado alone we are experiencing droughts that are degrading, narrowing, disturbing, and shortening the flow of many of our waterways. By helping to slow evaporation rates, recharge groundwater, and saturate the surrounding landscape, beavers could play an imperative role in protecting critical habitats from seasonal and prolonged drought. For example, in a four-year study, Dr. Fairfax’s team concluded that beaver ponds in Nevada kept riparian areas lush and green for both seasonal and prolonged 3-year drought cycles. In contrast, beaverless riparian areas on the same creek bed wilted, browned, and suffered from the extended dry periods.


Beavers as Firefighters

Without addressing drought, we cannot adequately combat the ever-increasing intensity of wildfires, since parched vegetation is perfect fire fuel. By keeping the landscape hydrated, beavers act as strong firefighters. Dr. Fairfax’s research shows that riparian areas dammed by beavers are 3 times less impacted by wildfires than areas without beavers. When a fire reaches a moist environment, it slows, smolders, and reroutes, leaving unburned, healthy habitat known as refugia. Pockets of refugia are imperative to the survival of beavers, riparian habitats, and local wildlife that seek shelter in these oases during a wildfire.


Having studied different wildfires across the Western states, Dr. Fairfax also researched how effective beavers are at creating refugia during megafires.Megafires are extreme, fast-growing fires that burn 100,000 acres or more of land at a time. These destructive events have become more frequent in the past few decades as drought conditions worsen. For this reason, Dr. Fairfax examined some of Colorado’s largest wildfires on record: The Cameron Peak Fire (2020) and East Troublesome Fire (2020). Both of these megafires devastated large swaths of Colorado, with Cameron Peak burning 208,913 acres and the East Troublesome burning 193,812 acres.


Through remote sensing and rigorous data collection/analysis, Dr. Fairfax concluded that despite the magnitude of these fires, beavers not only survived, but also protected a considerable portion of the riparian area surrounding their dams. During the Cameron Peak Fire, beaver complexes created refugia for around 270 acres, which is equal to 2.7 acres of sheltered land per every one beaver dam. On the skirts of these beaver complexes, pine trees were untouched by the fire, vegetation was still lush, and beavers continued to thrive. This oasis stood in sharp contrast to the barren, ash-filled landscape that surrounded the refugia after the Cameron Peak Fire. Dr. Fairfax remembers how clearly you could observe the transition in the landscape from high-burn severity to the untouched refugia.


Beavers created around 1,500 acres of refugia during the East Troublesome Fire, which means that for every one beaver dam, nearly 3 acres of land was protected. While Dr. Fairfax feels that more research is needed, her studies continue to support the theory that beavers have the power to protect vulnerable landscapes in the arid west from drought and wildfire, as well as protect some of the neighboring species that shelter in the refugia during fire events.


Beavers Restore Wetlands and Biodiversity

Since beavers redirect waterways, irrigate soil, improve groundwater health, and reduce evaporation rates, their presence often leads to the creation or maintenance of vibrant wetland habitats. Wetland hydrologistSarah Marshall, another speaker at the Beaver Summit, reminds us that wetlands are instrumental in water filtration and carbon storage. Furthermore, nearly 80% of Colorado wildlife utilize wetland and riparian areas, so these essential habitats also promote biodiversity. Unfortunately, since European settlement, roughly half of Colorado’s wetlands have been lost. Furthermore, beaver populations have greatly suffered after the species was nearly hunted to extinction in the 1900s. Current population estimates suggest that there are around 9-12 million beavers left in North America, in contrast to 60-400 million before European settlement.


Marshall urges that given how important wetland and riparian habitats are, supporting beaver reintroduction, settlement, and protection in their historic range could be one of our best tools to address climate change in the West. She claims that it can cost up to one million dollars to restore just one mile of a mountain stream. This staggering numbers stands next to the need for nearly 30,000 miles of stream in Colorado to be restored. Given the massive long-term ecological and economical benefits to having beavers on a landscape, scientists across the country are calling for increased reintroduction, management, and protection of this keystone species. If we let them, beavers could be one of our most valuable assets as the climate crisis races ahead.


Information sourced from the 2021 Colorado Beaver Summit seminar. To learn more about the speakers and the event, visit https://coloradobeaversummit.org

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