CONSERVATION THROUGH WET MEADOWS PROJECTS
by Cheryl Cwelich, Watershed Programs Coordinator
In the early morning light, the rolling sagebrush landscape is a soft green and grey against the pale blue of the sky. “Here’s some more Cheetos!” says restoration expert, Shawn Conner, using a colloquial term for the Gunnison sage-grouse roost pellets, which, indeed, resemble white cheddar Cheetos (though some people prefer calling them “dried dates”). All morning, we have been seeing Gunnison sage-grouse signs – pellets, tracks, feathers, and traces of dust baths.
The Gunnison sage-grouse, a medium-sized bird whose striking males have a bustle of long tailfeathers, a black mohawk, and a brilliant white chest with drooping yellow air-sacks; is federally listed as a threatened species. The Gunnison Basin is home to more than 85 percent of the species. To recover the species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has listed improving habitat quality and quantity as a priority one action. The Wet Meadows & Riparian Restoration Collaborative Program (Program) has been preserving, restoring, and protecting brood-rearing habitat for the Gunnison sage-grouse since 2012 using Zeedyk-style headcut and erosion control rock structures. U.S. Forest Service Wildlife Biologist, Darren Long, shared a fun fact with us: Gunnison sage-grouse practice geophagy, the practice of ingesting dirt. While earth-eating might work some of the time, wet meadows provide important food sources, like insects and herbaceous plants, for the chicks as they are growing. These mesic areas are also important to other migratory birds, big game, insects, other terrestrial and aquatic species, as well as to livestock for forage and private landowners for water resources.
Wet meadow and Gunnison sage-grouse habitat restoration has been happening at the U.S. Forest Service managed land on Flat Top Mountain since nearly the beginning of the Program – and it shows. The Gunnison sage-grouse are leaving their appreciation in the form of “Cheetos” all over the area. As Shawn, Darren, and myself walk the area to assess the restoration treatments, we come across several stock water ponds in other drainages. Most of them are dry. “Never seen that one dry before,” comments Shawn. With temperatures warming earlier and dust on snow contributing to sublimation, snowpack runoff in 2022 was not its best, leaving many pond and tank systems dry. Wet meadow systems help keep the sagebrush ecosystem resilient to drought – meaning floodplain connectivity, soil moisture retention, reduced erosion, and vegetation productivity.
Quantification research done by the United States Geological Survey has shown that natural rock detention infrastructure installed in eroded dryland stream beds in southeastern Arizona readily adapt to climate related stress. The study showed that these rock structures resulted in a 50 percent reduced average rate of flow especially in flash flood events, can sequester carbon at a rate of around 200-250 metric tons per hectare which is similar to coastal wetlands! These structures also extend the timing of summer base flows by 3 to 4 weeks, sequester soil at over 200 tons/year improving downstream water quality, support riparian vegetation and result in 28% more water flowing downstream compared to the control site, which means more water is kept in the system by developing a perched water table above bedrock .
The Upper Gunnison District hopes to conduct local research on improved base flows associated with wet meadow restoration in the near future. Flows that help wildlife leave more ‘Cheetos’ and over time hopefully help fill some of those empty stock water ponds.
If you would like to volunteer and for more information about the program, please contact Watershed Program Coordinator, Cheryl Cwelich: firstname.lastname@example.org.