Wild River – The Yampa

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The Yampa River curves right against a towering canyon wall, illuminated at sunrise. Mathers Hole Camp.

Wild River. What comes to mind? It’s a trick question because there aren’t many wild rivers. The Yampa River, which begins as a trickle from melting snow high in Colorado’s Flat Tops Wilderness is the only remaining wild river in the Colorado River watershed. The Yampa flows freely to the Green River, a major tributary of the Colorado River, so the Yampa has a big role if we’re ever to reach some measure of stream flow sustainability in a watershed that runs from Wyoming’s Wind River Range to the Gulf of California – it doesn’t make it that far today. Colorado’s thirsty Front Range cities that surround Denver are calling for transmountain diversions from the Colorado River watershed – importing 195,000 acre feet for growing cities and 260,000 acre feet for irrigation. I wonder, does irrigation include growing Kentucky Blue Grass to be installed and watered forever? An acre foot is as it sounds, one acre that is one foot deep. Drought is the new normal, rivers are over allocated, people are flooding in, and there’s this one wild river in northwest Colorado. Logically we must have the courage to let the Yampa run free. Continue reading “Wild River – The Yampa”

Roan Plateau Spared!

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Aerial view of the Roan Plateau surface on the wild side of the plateau, near Rifle, Colorado. Aerial support provided by LightHawk.

The Roan Plateau is such an extraordinary place, a jewel in Colorado and until now, one the most imperiled places in the West. It’s a big part of the reason that I started working in the sagebrush ecosytem when I was trying to reckon with the impact of energy development sweeping the West at the start of the fracking boom. Today, the wild side of the Roan is no longer imperiled. A compromise announced yesterday ended a protracted dispute, a triangle of energy developers, conservationists, and the Department of the Interior. For this moment, we can forget about mistakes that led to gas leases sold for development on the surface of this unique and special landscape and just celebrate the spirit of collaboration and resulting good outcome that keeps the West a little wilder. The Wilderness Society, Conservation Colorado, and others led the opposition to drilling the Roan, and many regular folks added their voices, reaching a pitch that couldn’t be ignored. It’s a great day for Colorado and the American West.

Gunnison Sage-grouse Threatened!

Gunnison sage grouse, Gunnison Basin

Gunnison Sage-grouse Male Display : Prints Available

In a move that’s sure to rile up folks on all sides, today the US Fish and Wildlife Service designated the Gunnison Sage-grouse as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act. (by the way, that’s my image accompanying the article) Anyone close to the issue and knowledgeable of Gunnison Sage-grouse knows the bird is endangered – they are endangered on the IUCN Red List. But, before we go off and point fingers, claim injustice, and look for a villain, we should all take a collective deep breath. It’s true that we lack the funds to manage Endangered Species as intended when the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, and it’s true the bird is endangered, but what would a listing do to improve the situation? Gunnison is different. The entire extended community has pulled together to conserve habitat and save the species. Colorado Parks and Wildlife is leading a Rangewide Conservation Plan that has widespread community support and is the benchmark for western communities. The good people of Gunnison have seen this coming for two decades and have worked hard to recover their namesake bird. The new decision gives Gunnnison Sage-grouse some protection – let’s wait and see how the critical habitat piece affects ranching and recreation.

Meet The Gunnison’s

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A male Gunnison Sage-grouse displays on a lek in the Gunnison Basin, Colorado

April is mating season for Sage-grouse in the West. There are two species: Greater Sage-grouse, which are more widespread, larger grouse; and Gunnison Sage-grouse, which are primarily located (87% of the total population) in the Gunnison, Colorado Basin. Gunnison Sage-grouse also have smaller, satellite leks, or mating grounds in west and southwest, CO and eastern Utah. Both Sage-grouse species are candidates for listing as Endangered Species, and Gunnison Sage-grouse are America’s fourth most endangered bird behind the ivory-billed woodpecker, California condor, and the whooping crane; but they are not on the endangered species list. Already endangered when they were recognized as a separate species from Greater Sage-grouse (GS-g), Gunnison Sage-grouse (GuS-g) have been the focal point of a regional collaborative initiative to improve habitat and recover the species. GuS-g were scheduled for a new listing decision this month, but the listing has been delayed, again. Would GuS-g benefit from listing? I don’t know, it’s a complex issue, but I do know that the extended Gunnison community has collaborated in the spirit of saving their namesake species and set a great example in the rural West. There are roughly 4,500 GuS-g in existence, total. They have a different bubbles popping vocalization than GS-g, are about 2/3 the size of GS-g, have broad white bands on tail feathers, and thick filo plume “pony tails” that flip up when males display for females. They also lek differently (in my observation), frequently using very large areas and splintering into small groups, using sagebrush for cover; presumably from predators. Golden eagles are the top predator of both Sage-grouse species, an easy target when they’re on a lek, displaying out in the open. Both Sage-grouse species live their entire life in sagebrush, and considered sagebrush “umbrella species”, meaning that by conserving sagebrush habitat, we help out the other 350 or so species that rely upon healthy, contiguous sagebrush habitat. Those species are under the Sage-grouse “umbrella.” If you’ve followed this blog at all, you know that my work is heavily focused on the sagebrush ecosystem. Continue reading “Meet The Gunnison’s”

Flying Dinosaur

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Echo Park Aerial : Prints Available

 The Yampa River winds through Castle Park to its confluence with the Green River in Echo Park. The Yampa is Colorado's second largest body of water and runs wild, apart from a few small dams and diversions. The Green River starts high in Wyoming's Wind River Range and is the chief tributary of the Colorado - the most endangered river in America. Dinosaur is fascinating for it's geography, cultural and ecological significance, and diversity. It was also the scene of a major conservation battle over the proposed damming of Echo Park, with the Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society leading the fight to keep the rivers running free. Photographer Philip Hyde was commissioned by Sierra Club president David Brower for the book This Is Dinosaur in 1955 - he became the Sierra Club's primary conservation photographer. Thank you to LightHawk for providing the aerial support to fly this mission. 

I met LightHawk volunteer pilot Jim Grady at oh-dark-thirty in Grand Junction, CO last week to fly over Dinosaur National Monument in northwest Colorado. Jim and I flew together once before, over the Gunnison Basin last year, so I knew I was in for a great flying experience with a great plot. Jim has that kind, generous spirit that is typically LightHawk, and will stay out there as long as it takes to get the right images. I was excited to climb into his 1953 suped-up Cessna 180 with the huge window opening – the window just hovers, held open by airflow. My only worry was nausea-inducing turbulence, but there was none of that in the cool, stable morning air. Dinosaur has been on my radar for awhile for the significance of the wild rivers, cultural and conservation history, and its central role as the wild in northwest Colorado. I came to think of Dinosaur in a regional context when I photographed Vermillion Basin and Brown’s Park NWR a few years ago, areas that tie into the Dinosaur complex. Their protection bolsters the ecological sustainability in a region that is under heavy drilling development pressure that could turn Dinosaur NM into a protected island in a sea of industrialized drilling; an ironic twist when you consider the struggle between conservationists and politicians hellbent to dam Echo Park in the ’50’s. I’m mindful of the courage of David Brower, Philip Hyde, and Wallace Stegner as we soar over the confluence and peer into deep canyons slicing the wrinkled landscape of the Moenkopi and Weber Sandstone formations. Those early conservation greats found a way to make Dinosaur matter and kept dams out of all national parks and monuments. The modern threat fragments surrounding lands that sustain the ecosystem and steals millions of gallons of water for every fracked well. The threat may have changed, but the challenge to see the future is no different today than it was in the 1950’s. Continue reading “Flying Dinosaur”

Oil Spill!

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Aerial View of the Natural Gas Plant On Parachute Creek, near the town of Parachute, Colorado. There is an oil spill just below the plant. I made this image with the support of LightHawk.

I remember flying over this massive industrial plant to photograph Two Sides Of The Roan and wondering what would happen if there was a spill. The plant is situated on Parachute Creek, which flows into the Colorado River. Rigs, plants, and compressor stations line both sides of the river in between Rifle and Parachute. A spill has happened – an estiimated 6,000 gallons of oil and 60,000 gallons of contaminated water have escaped and are leaching into the earth. From the Denver Post: “Oil company workers investigating a weeks-old spill along Parachute Creek are focused on a valve box on a pipeline carrying natural gas liquids away from the Williams Midstream gas plant, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission said Tuesday.” The good news is that it’s not in the creek yet, but we don’t know how much has discharged, where it’s traveled to, what chemicals are leaking… At a time when Colorado is debating how close to site energy development to human development, and while our governor claims that the industry has proven they can extract oil and gas safely, this catastrophe suggests a more balanced discussion.

Gunnison’s winter of 2007/2008

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Parlin Barn Winter : Prints Available

 The winter of 2007/2008 was harsh, even by Gunnison standards. Gunnison is often called the doughnut hole by locals because winter storms sit on surrounding mountain ridges; but that didn't happen in that particular winter. It snowed with no relief and ungulates sought hay bales to avoid starvation. Eventually, the Colorado Division of Wildlife fed deer and elk from the air. Hundreds of resident pronghorn died and have since been reintroduced to the Basin. I made this image of the old barn near Parlin, a reminder of the heaviest snow cover I've ever seen. 

As another wimpy winter winds down, I’m feeling nostalgic for a full-on snow season.

Ice Crystals

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Ice Crystals On The Gunnison River, Curecanti National Recreation Area, Colorado

While in Gunnison last week, I took a walk at Neversink in the Curecanti NRA on a twelve below zero morning looking for photo possibilities along the Gunnison River. The river is a frozen trickle in mid-winter, with small patches of open water surrounded by a cottonwood gallery forest. It’s a vital riparian area, with woody vegetation to give birds and rabbits cover – a wildlife oasis in the sage. I like to check the holes in the cottonwoods for an owl or a flicker, sometimes a raccoon. There were deer, rabbit, and coyote tracks in the snow and these interesting patterns of ice crystals on the frozen river. I talked to Western State College University wildlife biologist and professor Pat Magee about the crystals that form when dry cold air pulls moisture from the ice. Pat explained that the process goes from gas to solid, skipping liquid altogether. The crystals disappear as the valley warms and will reform when conditions are right, darn cold and dry. Fascinating, don’t you think?

Endangered!

Brooke Palmer, a seasonal trapper with the Colorado Division of Wildlife holds a female Gunnison Sage-grouse. The grouse was trapped and collared for relocation to “seed” a satellite lek outside of the Gunnison Basin.

It’s been a long wait for a Gunnison Sage-grouse (GuS-g) listing decision and the Jan. 10 US Fish and Wildlife News Release didn’t surprise anyone close to the issue. The Service officially proposed listing the Gunnison Sage Grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In the News Release, the USFWS applauded local partners and agencies – and rightfully so, Gunnison formed a GuS-g working group years ago, bringing together the entire extended community where grouse habitat exists. Ranchers, conservation groups, Western State College, land managers, and government agencies are on the same page and managing the grouse as if they were already listed. Sisk-A-Dee is managing the public viewing blind and special events like the Gunnison Sage-grouse Festival so people actually have an opportunity to see and learn about the grouse.The ESA is a powerful tool and it’s not easy to get a species listed – there’s a long waiting list of “Warranted But Precluded” species deserving of ESA protection. But there are only 4,000 or so GuS-g’s left in the world, mostly in the Gunnison Basin, literally all of the eggs in one basket, so they had to be listed. Continue reading “Endangered!”

Another Haliburton Highway?

Flowering rabbit brush lines a two lane road in the Thompson Divide area, near Carbondale, Colorado. This entire area is leased for natural gas development.

In “Drilling The Roaring Fork Valley. Really?” I highlighted yet another plan to turn a truly special place into an industrial-scale gas field. Marla and I have traveled to the Aspen/Carbondale area quite a few times, usually to hike around Mount Sopris or photograph the aspen forest on McClure Pass near Marble. I recently learned that the entire area north and west of Carbondale is leased for drilling and could become an industrial wasteland. The Thompson Divide is the only buffer between Carbondale and the Piceance Basin, a mega-field sacrificed landscape, industrial complex in northwest Colorado. Along the Thompson Divide, ranchlands and rolling sagebrush give way to aspen and conifer forest in the shadow of towering Mount Sopris. Crystal River pours from the high peaks, cutting through the valley to its confluence with the Roaring Fork in Carbondale. The Roaring Fork is a significant tributary of the Colorado. The Thompson Divide is important mid-elevation habitat for migrating deer and elk, the Crystal River irrigates hay meadows,and it’s a hiking, mountain biking, wildlife-watching, fly fishing, photography and hunting mecca; providing year round revenue for surrounding communities. The Thompson Divide Coalition, with 3,200 members, is advocating for protection of the entire area and I fuly support their position. This simply isn’t the place for a massive fracking industrial park, with the thousands of truck trips, toxic chemicals threatening air and water, and pressure on rural towns. I made a trip last week to make images that I hope will support the opposition – click more to continue: Continue reading “Another Haliburton Highway?”

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