When you look at the mountain landscapes around you, what do you see? Most everyone sees a view worth appreciating, but not everyone sees what the conservation-minded individual sees—a home and a community. We are fortunate in our valley to be surrounded not only by beautiful vistas, but by abundant wildlife habitat. Unfortunately, landscape changes brought on by human land use are a significant factor in habitat destruction. As growing populations encourage development and industry to encroach upon our open spaces, policymakers are making important decisions that affect our local wildlife.
What makes a stretch of land an important habitat? Critical habitats are not always the most scenic areas of land. In fact, it is often the most overlooked ecosystems that can be of the most importance to wildlife. A riparian corridor along the stream in your backyard or a sagebrush community along the highway could rival the significance of a pristine mountain vista when it comes to an animal’s habitat needs. If a federally endangered or threatened species is found in a particular area of land, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service can designate that area as a critical habitat and set it aside for protection. But what about species that are not federally endangered or threatened? There are countless efforts towards protecting important wildlife habitat across Colorado.
On a local level, the Eagle County Open Space Program has worked with municipal governments, private landowners, and federal agencies like the United States Forest Service (USFS) to designate open space areas. These areas not only offer opportunities for public access and recreation, they are also an important buffer from development for local wildlife populations. Statewide, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has implemented the Colorado Wildlife Habitat Protection Program. This program works with landowners to designate conservation easements according to habitat protection and public access goals. Critical legislation on the federal level has set aside a large amount of habitat as well. The Wilderness Act of 1964 has allowed for 109 million acres of land to be preserved as wilderness and “untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor and does not remain.” Residents of Eagle County have three major wilderness areas at their doorsteps, managed by the USFS. Recently, the designation of Brown’s Canyon as a National Monument will keep that habitat and recreation site safe from development for generations.
In addition to combating the problem of habitat destruction, these programs also address habitat fragmentation. Habitat fragmentation is the breaking apart of continuous habitat into distinct segments. Habitat fragmentation reduces the range of individual species and alters important ecosystem processes by changing the composition of plant and animal communities. Sometimes the most seemingly insignificant parcel of land can be of the most critical importance to local wildlife populations. For example, some of our favorite local ungulates, Rocky Mountain Elk, are especially sensitive to fragmentation in their migration corridors.
Every stakeholder for a stretch of land sees something unique. The weekend warrior sees a campsite or a trailhead, the industrialist sees natural resources, the developer sees opportunity for investment, and the conservationist sees an ecological community or home. Successful habitat conservation requires getting individuals with diverse opinions to recognize the importance of biodiversity and come together for the greater good of the wildlife we share our mountain home with.
Tory is a Naturalist at Walking Mountains Science Center who makes her habitat in Minturn and enjoys exploring our nearby open spaces and wilderness areas!