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‘Bioblitz’ examines the ecological diversity of Powers’ ranches

By Megan Tackett
Special to The Sopris Sun

Start with what you have.

That’s the sentiment of Garfield County resident and properties-owner John Powers, and it’s why he commissioned the Colorado National Heritage Program (CNHP) to bring in almost 20 scientists, student interns and expert volunteers for five days to survey the species that also call his Spring Valley and Rifle Creek ranches home.

During the week of June 26, CNHP — a program based out of Colorado State University’s Warner College of Natural Resources in Fort Collins — uprooted staff and students to spend a week in the Roaring Fork Valley to launch the in-depth biodiversity study, which they branded a “bioblitz.”

It was the second of its kind in as many years, and all involved plan for it not to be the last.

“We act locally — we work on the scale of bioblitzes — but we’re connecting that to a global story for conservation,” David Anderson, CNHP director and chief scientist, said during a June 29 presentation at the Third Street Center.

The key in biodiversity studies of this nature, it seems, is diversity. CNHP partnered with several local entities to ensure the survey’s feasibility: Colorado Mountain College housed those visiting from Fort Collins, and the Aspen Global Change Institute in Basalt provided staff and interns to help with field work.

“The thing about ecology is, it’s the study of our natural world. And our natural world is incredibly complex. While you can understand certain components of the natural world, no one in a lifetime can understand all those components, and certainly not all those components and how they work together,” said Elise Osenga, research and education coordinator at the Aspen Global Change Institute. “And so that’s where partnerships like this are incredibly important. I know my little piece of the puzzle, and everyone else knows theirs, and when we put them all together, we get a finished puzzle — sort of; there are still missing pieces because it’s ecology and we’ll never know everything,” she added.

To that end, CNHP has a “dual identity,” as Anderson described it. “We’re part of CSU, but we’re also part of this international network of programs organized through a nonprofit called NatureServe, based in Arlington, Va. NatureServe takes data and science that our program produces and combines it into a hemisphere-wide map of conservation priorities. There’s a program like ours in every state, in every Canadian province and territory, in 16 Latin-American countries,” he said. That level of connectivity enables for a sort of economies of scale for biodiversity conservation, he continued.

It also provides an educational aspect that is far reaching. Property owners like Powers gain insights as to how to best manage their land; local government officials can make better informed decisions regarding development; and both student and professional scientists have paid avenues to contribute to their fields.

John Sovell, a CNHP wildlife biologist who also served as a mentor and teacher to the student interns during the bioblitz, pointed out that the program allowed students a paid internship opportunity. “The internship is really competitive. We had maybe 40 or 50 people apply. Those selected actually get a stipend and credits” in addition to the experience, he said.

And there is a lot of experience that gets packed into those five days.

Cora Marrama, a CSU student finishing her studies in fish wildlife and conservation biology and CNHP intern, said her favorite experience during the bioblitz was electrofishing.

“You electrocute the fish, which sounds completely inhumane, but it’s not,” she assured. “So the fish are attracted to this electrocurrent you’re putting in the water. When they swim into it and get close enough, they get stunned, and they stop swimming. And you can scoop them up with a net. So that’s a really easy way to see what’s in the stream because essentially everything just stops moving and you just scoop them up as you go and ‘OK, this is what’s in the stream,’ versus, for instance, fishing, which is a really selective process.”

For 16-year-old Abby Riley, a student at Fossil Ridge High School in Fort Collins, her favorite experiences focused more on flora than fauna.

“I really like plants,” she said. “ I like mossing; mossing is fun. Mossing and botanizing are the two words I was not familiar with before I showed up here.”

“We’re all learners, and I think we all had fun,” Powers said of the bioblitz. “And I’d love to think that there are other properties and people who would want to participate so that the data we’re gathering are across more properties. And what a gift to be able to work with all these people to tell you what you have to start with.”

While future bioblitzes are already in the works for the shorter-term future, Anderson and the rest of the CNHP staff have their sights set on a larger-scale project for the area, as well: following up on the Roaring Fork Valley Watershed Biological Inventory that was conducted between 1997 and 1999.

“We’d really like to follow that up because a lot has happened since then,” Susan Panjabi, senior botanist and 24-year CNHP veteran who helped prepare the original Watershed Inventory, said. “There’s just a lot more we know — new species have been discovered: new species that are found in the Valley that we did not know about in ‘97 through ‘99.” For instance, she said, the bioblitz team found a rare plant — called the Good Neighbor Pod Plant — at Powers’s Spring Valley Ranch. “This plant here, it’s only known from Colorado: nowhere else in the world. So it’s really pretty cool that we found it there.”

And as Anderson pointed out, conservation opportunities are narrowing as the Valley’s population continues to grow.

“The population in Glenwood Springs increased 51 percent since 2000. It’s not going to stop; they’re still coming. Tourism really drives the economy here, and scenery is part of that. Biodiversity is part of that. In more ways than almost anybody ever thinks about,” he said.

And as the need for conservation grows, the next generation of scientists is already inspired. Julia Marzolf, a 17-year-old student at Rocky Mountain High School in Fort Collins, is looking forward to a summer of college visits after her experience with the bioblitz. Now, she said, “I know what I want to do: ecology.”