Keep Chico Basin Ranch Intact

August 4, 2020

 

Colorado State Land Board

1127 Sherman St

Denver, CO 80203

 

Re: Chico Basin Ranch

 

State Land Board Commissioners and Staff,

Please accept and fully consider these comments on the future of the Chico Basin Ranch, submitted on behalf of Aiken Audubon, Audubon Rockies, Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, Center for Collaborative Conservation, Central Colorado Wilderness Coalition, Colorado Field Ornithologists, Colorado Native Plant Society, Colorado Natural Heritage Program, Denver Field Ornithologists, Rocky Mountain Wild,  Wild Connections, Arkansas Valley Audubon Society, Black Canyon Audubon, Boulder County Audubon, Denver Audubon, Evergreen Audubon, Fort Collins Audubon, Grand Valley Audubon, Roaring Fork Audubon, Tiger Audubon, Weminuche Audubon, Richard Bunn, John Drummond, Dr. Paul Evangelista, Jenyva Turner Fox, Shane Heschel, Richard Knight, Bill Maynard, Mark Peterson and William Romme.

We are writing out of concern for the future of the Chico Basin Ranch after the 25-year lease from the State Land Board expires at the end of 2024. The sale or division of the ranch will likely prove detrimental to the wildlife and plant communities found on Chico as well as the land itself. We therefore request that the State Land Board keep the entire 87,000-acre Chico Basin Ranch intact.

Responsible stewardship and management of Chico over the past 20 years have prioritized a healthy ecosystem while maintaining a working ranch that is open to the public. In many ways, this management approach has benefited landscape integrity within the Chico Basin. From a landscape-level conservation standpoint, the existence of 87,000 contiguous acres of high-quality shortgrass prairie, sandsage prairie, creeks, and wetlands is exceedingly rare and a major asset within the degraded and diminishing prairie of eastern Colorado. As human development along the Front Range continues to push eastward, large tracts of intact shortgrass prairie are becoming increasingly uncommon, threatening many species that depend on the habitat for survival. In a review of 117 published tests of hypotheses regarding the effects of habitat fragmentation on bird nesting success, the effects of predators on the success of nesting birds were found to be more prevalent when habitat fragmentation occurred at a landscape scale, such as could result from division of the ranch into separate properties, compared to fragmentation at smaller scales (Stephens et al. 2004).

Throughout the United States, native grassland is one of the most imperiled ecosystems, with less than 40% of the historic extent remaining (Wilsey et al. 2019). In Colorado, over 50% of shortgrass prairie has been lost through conversion to agriculture and other uses, including residential and commercial development, particularly along the Front Range (Colorado Parks and Wildlife 2015). Shortgrass prairie is also highly vulnerable to climate change, as increasing warmth and decreasing moisture will likely support an increase in shrub species such as cholla and snakeweed (Colorado Parks and Wildlife 2015). According to the Colorado Natural Heritage Program’s (CNHP) Biodiversity Scorecard, shortgrass prairie is poorly conserved in the state, one of only three ecological systems that received the lowest ranking (Rondeau et al. 2011). Reflecting both the importance and the vulnerability of this habitat, shortgrass prairie supports 52 species designated by Colorado Parks and Wildlife as Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN; Colorado Parks and Wildlife 2015).

Sandsage is a shrub-dominated system that is found in sandy soils on the eastern plains. The western extent of sandsage in Colorado is reached at the Chico Basin and Bohart Ranches, where there are large, contiguous stands of this community. Due to development, sandsage has declined in the state by 20% and is also ranked as poorly conserved by CNHP. Sandsage supports a diverse community of birds and many burrowing mammals and reptiles, including 21 SGCN in Colorado. Within the sandsage system at Chico Basin are sand blowouts that support other specialized species.

The ecological value of the diversity of habitats within Chico Basin Ranch is further exhibited by the inclusion of 67% of the land within one or more Potential Conservation Areas (PCA), as defined by CNHP. In all, seven different PCAs occur partially or entirely within the ranch, three of which have been identified as having Very High Biodiversity Significance. The ranch’s ecological value is also apparent in the documented presence of at least 345 bird species, including several locally rare migrants and breeding species, such as Ferruginous Hawk (SGCN Tier 2), Mountain Plover (SGCN Tier 1), and Burrowing Owl (SGCN Tier 1). Chico is home to 13 Tier 1 SGCN bird species, Tier 1 species being those that “…are truly of highest conservation priority in the state” (Colorado Parks and Wildlife 2015). Rare amphibians include the Northern Leopard Frog (SGCN Tier 1) and the Plains Leopard Frog (SGCN Tier 1), and rare fish include the Arkansas Darter (SGCN Tier 1). Monarch Butterfly, a species in severe decline, also migrates through and depends on Chico Basin Ranch.

The Chico Creek PCA includes much of the Chico Basin Ranch. This PCA is identified for its wetland plant communities and the presence of the Arkansas Darter in the watershed. Chico Creek flows through the ranch, where it is fed by a large shallow alluvial aquifer that is charged by rainwater across the basin. Along the banks of Chico Creek this aquifer emerges as springs that create wetlands along the creek. It appears that the hydrology of this system remains in a natural state. Current management by the ranch has helped to keep this hydrologic system and its natural heritage resources intact.

Habitat loss and fragmentation are two of the greatest threats to wildlife populations. Habitat loss is listed as a main threat to 85% of species that are classified as threatened or endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Habitat fragmentation often accompanies or precedes habitat loss and carries unique risks to plant and wildlife populations. The loss of grassland habitat throughout the United States is reflected by the wildlife populations that depend on the habitat. A recent report by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology estimates that as a group, grassland birds have declined in numbers by 53% since 1970, with nearly 75% of grassland species in decline (Rosenberg 2019). No other habitat type in North America has lost more birds or has a higher proportion of species with decreasing population trends.

Because Chico Basin Ranch has a relatively large area of intact shortgrass prairie, it plays an important role in the conservation of Colorado’s grassland birds. Chico provides breeding, migratory, and/or winter habitat for over 30 bird species that are considered SGCN in CPW’s State Wildlife Action Plan (Colorado Parks and Wildlife 2015). Many of these species are in decline largely because of loss of intact shortgrass prairie habitat within their annual range.

Burrowing Owls, in addition to being considered a Tier 1 SGCN, are state-listed as threatened. Burrowing Owls in Colorado are almost entirely dependent on healthy prairie dog colonies, which are often the target of eradication efforts by developers and agricultural interests. Mountain Plover, another Tier 1 bird SGCN that nests on Chico Basin Ranch, was formerly proposed for federal listing under the Endangered Species Act. Mountain Plovers require areas with a patchwork of shortgrass prairie and bare ground, and often nest in prairie dog colonies. If Chico is split into different properties, differing land uses between adjacent parcels may lead to a decrease in prairie dog colony acreage and increase fragmentation of remaining colonies, which would have a detrimental effect on local Burrowing Owl and Mountain Plover populations.

If Chico Basin Ranch were to be split into multiple parcels, whether to be leased separately or partially sold off, it would have a detrimental effect on the many vulnerable bird species that rely on large, intact tracts of shortgrass prairie. Even if all of the parcels continued to be leased for grazing operations under separate property owners, there would inevitably be an increase in roads, ranch buildings, and other infrastructure that would increase the fragmentation of the habitat. Keeping the land as a single, large parcel is the soundest decision from an ecological stewardship perspective.

Among the State Land Board’s goals for Chico Basin Ranch were to “protect the unique and valuable natural resources on the property, and to promote educational programs with a primary focus on…K-12 public school students…with an emphasis on natural resource education….” In addition to the benefits birds and other wildlife enjoy from Chico’s high quality and intact prairie habitat, the ranch’s natural landscape has provided varied opportunities for environmental and ranching education, as well as public recreation. Experiences offered during the current 25-year lease have included school outings, field trips for senior living facilities, college coursework and research, birdwatching trips (both for individuals and groups), bird banding demonstrations and community potlucks, to name a few. State Land Board staff has stated that the operation of the ranch will demonstrate that successful and profitable ranching and crop production can coexist with these public gatherings; and current operations have undeniably demonstrated that these multiple uses can be successfully integrated.

Ranchlands, the current Chico Basin Ranch leaseholder, has done an exemplary job balancing production, education, public access, and stewardship of the land. In maintaining consistency with the current management of the ranch, we believe that an open-gate policy promotes community, creates rich educational experiences, and allows visitors to see firsthand the interplay of ranching and natural resources. Public access and education lay the groundwork for the next generation of land stewards.

For more than twenty years, a bird banding station has been in operation on the ranch. Each spring and fall, hundreds of local students and community members visit the station to see science in action and learn how habitats on the ranch support migratory and breeding birds. To date, over 27,000 individual birds have been measured and banded at the station. Bird banding provides critical data on migratory routes, behavior, average lifespans, breeding distribution, and how these characteristics change over time. The USGS Bird Bander Portal highlights the variety of applications for the use of bird banding data (USGS 2020):

“Bird band information is an important tool that is used to monitor populations, set hunting regulations, restore endangered species, study effects of environmental contaminants, and address such issues as avian influenza, bird hazards at airports, and crop depredations.”

For the benefit of the public and the students that State Land Board lands ultimately support, we ask that the new lease include specific requirements for land stewardship, continued educational programs, including bird-banding, and future public access.

The State Land Board purchased the ranch with the goal of maintaining a large, intact, working landscape. Arguments suggesting the size of the Chico Basin Ranch is a burden for the State Land Board will be, and have, already been made. We urge the board to acknowledge the rarity of such a large, intact, and high-quality property and to instead approach the upcoming lease expiration as an opportunity to retain such a magnificent asset within the State Land Board’s portfolio.

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on this exceptional property.

 

Anna Joy Lehmicke, President

Aiken Audubon Society

330 E Costilla, Colorado Springs, CO 80903

[email protected]

 

Alison Holloran, Executive Director

Audubon Rockies

[email protected]

 

Tammy VerCauteren, Executive Director

Bird Conservancy of the Rockies

[email protected]

 

John Sanderson, Director

Center for Collaborative Conservation

[email protected]

 

John Stansfield, Director

Central Colorado Wilderness Coalition

[email protected]

 

Nick Komar, President

Colorado Field Ornithologists

[email protected]

 

Bayard Ewing, Conservation Committee Chair

Colorado Native Plant Society

[email protected]

 

Dave Anderson, Director and Chief Scientist

Colorado Natural Heritage Program

[email protected]

 

David Hill, President

Denver Field Ornithologists

[email protected]

 

Tehri Parker, Executive Director

Rocky Mountain Wild

[email protected]

 

John Sztukowski, Conservation Director

Wild Connections

[email protected]

 

Peg Rooney, President

Arkansas Valley Audubon Society

[email protected]

 

Dr. Bruce Ackerman, President

Black Canyon Audubon

[email protected]

 

Ray Bridge, Conservation Chair

Boulder County Audubon

[email protected]

 

Polly Reetz, Conservation Committee Chairperson

Denver Audubon

[email protected]

 

JoAnne Hackos, Conservation Board Member

Evergreen Audubon

[email protected]

 

John Shenot, President

Fort Collins Audubon

[email protected]

 

Nic Korte, Conservation Chair

Grand Valley Audubon

[email protected]

 

Mary Harris, President

Roaring Fork Audubon

[email protected]

 

Mary Rudolph, President

Tiger Audubon (Colorado College)

[email protected]

 

Becky Herman, President

Weminuche Audubon

[email protected]

 

Richard Bunn, Wildlife Biologist, US Army, Retired

[email protected]

 

John Drummond, Professional Bird Tour Guide

[email protected]

 

Dr. Paul Evangelista, Research Scientist

Natural Resource Ecology Lab

Colorado State University

[email protected]

 

Jenyva Turner Fox, Master Bird Bander

[email protected]

 

Shane Heschel, Assoc Professor of Organismal Biology and Ecology

Colorado College

[email protected]

 

Richard Knight, Emeritus Professor of Wildlife Conservation

Warner College of Natural Resources

Colorado State University

[email protected]

 

Bill Maynard, Biologist

[email protected]

 

Mark Peterson, Natural Resources Technician

[email protected]

 

William H. Romme, Emeritus Professor of Ecology

Colorado State University

[email protected]

 

 

Literature Cited

 

Colorado Parks and Wildlife. 2015. State Wildlife Action Plan: A Strategy for Conserving Wildlife in Colorado. Denver, CO. https://cpw.state.co.us/aboutus/Pages/StateWildlifeActionPlan.aspx.

Rondeau, R., K. Decker, J. Handwerk, J. Siemers, L. Grunau, and C. Pague. 2011. The state of Colorado’s biodiversity. Prepared for The Nature Conservancy by the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado.

Rosenberg, K. V., A. M. Dokter, P. J. Blancher, J. R. Sauer, A. C. Smith, P. A. Smith, J. C. Stanton, A. Panjabi, L. Helft, M. Parr, P. Marra. 2019. Decline of the North American Avifauna. Science 365(6461).

Stephens, S. E., D. N. Koons, J. J. Rotella, and D. W. Willey. 2004. Effects of habitat fragmentation on avian nesting success: a review of the evidence at multiple spatial scales. Biological Conservation 115(1):101-110.

USGS (U.S. Geological Survey). 2020. Bander Portal FAQs. https://www.usgs.gov/faqs/i-found-or-killed-a-bird-a-band-or-color-marker-around-its-leg-what-do-i-do?qt-news_science_products=0#qt-news_science_products. Accessed July 2020.

Wilsey, C.B., J. Grand, J. Wu, N. Michel, J. Grogan-Brown, B. Trusty. 2019. North American Grasslands. National Audubon Society, New York, New York,