Citizen Scientists Participate in Arkansas River Corridor BioBlitz

By: Megan Mueller, Senior Conservation Biologists
May 24, 2016

Bighorn Sheep, Photo by Bob Wick, BLM
Bighorn Sheep
Photo by: Bob Wick, BLM

Flowing from the top of the Rockies to the Mississippi River, the Arkansas River is one of America’s mighty river systems. Its headwaters make up an ecological wonderland and a recreational hotspot, cutting through rugged canyon country full of hair-raising land features like rock hoodoos and rough crags. This breathtaking Colorado landscape could be protected for future generations thanks to the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) new emphasis on landscape-level planning and balancing conservation with other uses. Conservation groups, lead by our friends at Wild Connections, have crafted a proposal for an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC – a type of protective BLM designation) for over 100 thousand acres of lands

Arkansas River Corridor BioBlitz, Photo by Kate Spinelli
Arkansas River Corridor BioBlitz
Photo by: Kate Spinelli

On May 14 and 15, Rocky Mountain Wild joined with other conservation organizations to conduct a BioBlitz of the Falls Gulch area, north of Cotopaxi, CO, within the proposed Area of Critical Environmental Concern. A BioBlitz is an intensive period of biological surveying that attempts to record as many plant and wildlife species as possible within a designated area. Scientists and volunteers looked for rare wildflowers, plants, birds, mammals, reptiles, insects and more. The results will be entered into a national database of species observations using the iNaturalist app and website (www.inaturalist.org).adjacent to the Arkansas River. The BLM can use this designation to address unique conservation needs of an area ranging from biodiversity protection to climate change vulnerability to wildlife migration. For the lands surrounding the most popular river segment for kayakers and rafters in the country, an Area of Critical Environmental Concern designation is crucial for not leaving lands vulnerable to pollution and development. For more information on the proposed Area of Critical Environmental Concern, see https://wilderness.org/ark.

Arkansas River Corridor BioBlitz, Photo by: Kate Spinelli
Arkansas River Corridor BioBlitz
Photo by: Kate Spinelli

Approximately 35 dedicated volunteers gathered with their smart phones in hand to help conservation groups document the diversity of life in this area. Volunteers enjoyed spending time in a beautiful area, meeting new people, and getting away from the hectic pace of everyday life and taking time to observe and learn about all of the fascinating wildlife and plant species that share the land with us.

The Falls Gulch Area is home to a lush, spring-fed wet meadow in a lovely hanging valley over a travertine cliff. The springs in the meadow form a small stream that plummets over the cliff face as a 100 foot waterfall. The verdant green meadow contrasts sharply with the dry, rocky, pinon-juniper forest in the surrounding hills. On the margins of the wet meadow, you find very large trees that have benefited from the water provided by the springs. On the north facing slopes adjacent to the meadow, the forest is moist, shady, and dominated by Douglas fir trees. Upstream from the springs, the gulch becomes a narrow, dry canyon with steep cliffs and many small caves. This variety of different environments creates habitat for a diversity of plant and animal species.

Arkansas River Corridor BioBlitz, Photo by: Kate Spinelli
Arkansas River Corridor BioBlitz
Photo by: Kate Spinelli

Though results are still being compiled and tallied, the group cataloged an impressive array of species in a short time. Volunteers found evidence of frequent use of the area by black bears and elk. A wide variety of songbirds were observed singing in the meadow and splashing in a small spring, while raptors soared overhead. Plant life was abundant and very diverse, from a variety of wildflowers in the meadow, to cacti, hanging ferns and many different lichens in the drier canyon areas. Small caves in the cliffs and canyons around the meadow were occupied by bats.

We are looking forward to working with scientists to compile the results and share them with the Bureau of Land Management and the broader scientific community. We anticipate that these site specific results will reinforce broader landscape-scale research, which has suggested that the proposed Arkansas River Corridor Area of Critical Environmental Concern (which includes the Falls Gulch area) supports high levels of biodiversity and is worth protecting.

The event was sponsored by: Rocky Mountain Wild, Wild Connections, The Wilderness Society, and Conservation Colorado.

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