RIPARIAN AREAS AND WETLANDS ARE THE MOST PRODUCTIVE ACRES IN ANY WESTERN LANDSCAPE.
They often produce several times the amount of forage of surrounding uplands, and include most of the plant species diversity on the landscape, despite occupying only 1-4% of the total land area. This is due, of course, to the presence of water, the most limiting resource in most Western landscapes.
Wetlands and riparian areas also provide important ecosystem services to local communities by slowing water runoff and reducing erosion, filtering and cleaning water runoff before it inters streams, lakes or ponds, and providing habitat and important corridors for wildlife and fish. In fact, up to 80% of wildlife in Western landscapes depend on these ecosystems for at least some part of their life cycle, including big game species like deer and elk. Many wildlife species are riparian or wetland-obligate species, meaning that they depend solely on these ecosystems for most or all of their life cycles, including fish, amphibians and many insects.
Wetlands and riparian areas are unique in that they are some of the most resilient ecosystems in the West, while also being the most sensitive. Water will help these ecosystems bounce back from disturbance or stress quickly, but the quality and quantity of water in a wetland depends heavily on the management of the nearby uplands which, after all, receive most of the precipitation that falls to earth. The management of those uplands will play a big role in how much of that rain and snow actually reaches the wetland, and in what condition. And those wetlands will quickly reflect how effective the uplands are at capturing and storing water.
RIPARIAN AND WETLAND MANAGEMENT STARTS WITH GOOD MANAGEMENT OF THE UPLANDS.
After all, it is the uplands that capture most of the falling rain and snow and feed it to nearby streams and ponds through the ground. However, Blue Valley Ranch has implemented many projects that directly improve these ecosystems as well. The construction of small catchments in intermittent streams helps to slow runoff, hold water and create small riparian oases in an arid landscape. Annual plantings of both cottonwoods and willows help to improve and expand existing riparian areas. Finally, an intensively managed grazing program can not only avoid damaging these sensitive areas, but even be used to improve them by removing stifling residual forage during the dormant season.
One of the largest wetlands projects on Blue Valley Ranch has been the creation of artificial wetlands and waterfowl habitat by constructing impoundments along the Blue River floodplain. Blue Valley Ranch’s location along the Blue River in Middle Park provides a unique opportunity to build habitat that attracts migratory waterfowl traveling along Colorado’s intermountain flyway. By constructing low berms with controlled outlets that allow water to flow from one to the next, water levels in each impoundment can be controlled independently to provide deeper open water, shallow water with vegetative cover, and saturated wetlands to accommodate all species of waterfowl. While management intensive, this system of floodable impoundments, ponds and streams provides a variety of habitat types for wildlife, as well as good fishing and great aesthetics for people.
THE PROLIFERATION IN VEGETATION AND AQUATIC PLANT SPECIES IN BOTH RESTORED AND CREATED WETLANDS HAS BEEN QUICK AND WIDESPREAD.
Some aquatic species, such as water smartweed (Polygonum sp) and buttercup (Ranunculus sp) appeared without human intervention, likely transported by migratory waterfowl. Repeat photography has documented rapid growth of sedges, rushes and water-loving grasses. It has also documented a proliferation of invasive Canada thistle, prompting a change in how weeds are controlled along the river corridor.
A long list of waterfowl species has been observed on the new wetlands, including mallards, teal, widgeon, gadwall, pintails and mergansers. Geese are very common, and blue heron have established a permanent presence. Shore birds and other waders like white-faced ibis, plovers and rails can also be found, and even sandhill cranes have been found nesting near the river corridor.