Uncompahgre Plateau Project Receives National Attention

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A project launched more than five years ago by the Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) and other agencies to improve wildlife habitat on the Uncompahgre Plateau in southwestern Colorado is now garnering national attention as a prime example of how state and federal agencies can work with local communities to manage entire ecosystems more effectively.

Academic researchers, federal policy analysts, and congressional leaders are singling out the Uncompahgre Plateau Project (UP) as one of the top natural-resource collaborative efforts in the nation. As part of federal efforts to showcase the project, Department of Interior (DOI) officials plan to conduct a workshop in Montrose this summer to learn more about UP and the people behind the acronym, said Rick Sherman, UP technical coordinator and a former DOW biologist.

“They would like to get out on the ground, look at projects, meet with the many partners, and talk about how successful collaborative projects work,” Sherman said.

UP is drawing national interest as the federal government begins managing forests under the Healthy Forests Restoration Act. Despite criticism the new legislation caters to logging interests, supporters argue it is aimed at reducing wildfire threats while upholding environmental standards, and encouraging early public input. Its adoption follows several years of punishing drought and devastating wildfires across the West, and at a time land mangers search for better approaches to land stewardship. A growing trend is to look at ways of improving ecosystems on a collaborative, “landscape” level rather than through independent efforts based on land ownership.

Besides the DOW, project partners include the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), and the Public Lands Partnership (PLP), representing Delta, Montrose, Ouray and San Miguel counties and an array of citizens groups. Ranchers, loggers, environmentalists, recreation advocates, hunters, regional universities, and major electricity providers are among UP’s supporters and partners. Since its inception, UP has received another $3.5 million in funding from the Habitat Partnership Program, and the Rocky Mountain Elk, National Fish and Wildlife, and Ford foundations, among other entities.

Taking its name from the Ute Indian phrase for “red water flowing,” the Uncompahgre Plateau is a unique region in southwest Colorado, encompassing 1.5 million acres of private, state and federal land surrounded by rivers, red-rock canyons, mountain valleys and plateaus. It is home to one of the largest mule deer populations in the United States and is a premier hunting and recreation area. The plateau also boasts a complex ecosystem of salt desert, sagebrush steppe, piñon-juniper, mountain shrub, ponderosa pine, aspen, and spruce-fir habitats.

Bruce Watkins, a DOW senior terrestrial biologist who was instrumental in the development of the UP Project and obtaining seed money, said the project was launched in 1999 after biologists and hunters became concerned about the plateau’s declining mule deer population.

Originally, state and federal biologists set out to improve winter food sources for deer and reduce competition with elk. However, UP quickly evolved into a multi-agency, citizen-based effort when the DOW realized it needed help leveraging the $500,000 of DOW capital construction funds the Colorado Legislature appropriated for wildlife habitat improvement. It sought support and guidance from the Public Lands Partnership and federal agencies. Once the project started rolling, all of the partners realized they needed to take the region’s economic, social, cultural, and ecological aspects into consideration if UP was going to work to everyone’s benefit.

“When we got all these other interests involved, it just exploded,” Watkins said. “We’re trying to look at the landscape, rather than an area divided up by administrative boundaries. It’s the strength of this collaborative that’s allowed this project to work.”

Since the project started, more than 30,000 acres of vegetation have been treated to improve wildlife habitat and reduce fire risks. UP has fostered a program to produce and harvest native plant seeds for restoration efforts, and partnerships with Tri-State Generation & Transmission Inc. and the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Western Area Power Administration. These projects are designed to improve wildlife habitat while protecting power lines that transmit electricity throughout the Western United States from catastrophic wildfires.

Jim Garner, a DOW habitat biologist who has been involved with UP since its inception, said dirt is the best firebreak in the world, but is not very wildlife friendly. By cutting back vegetation in a mosaic pattern, UP coordinators are protecting habitats and electricity stations.

“A high priority for federal agencies under the National Fire Plan is to protect property and infrastructure, and power lines are a very significant element of this. An outage in these lines could affect customers throughout the West,” Garner said.

Before UP, native seed sources in Colorado were limited and biologists often imported seeds from Utah, Idaho and other states. The project’s Native Plant Program arose after biologists determined the region’s native plant communities were becoming less diverse and productive, leading to soil erosion and noxious weed invasions. Natural processes, historic over grazing, and past land-management practices contributed to the situation. In addition, wildfires in the West in recent years have fueled an increased demand for native plant seeds. The seed program has flourished through a collaborative effort with Colorado State University, Brigham Young University, Utah State Nursery, and the Upper Colorado Environmental Plant Center in Meeker.

In part, UP owes its success to its many supporters. Among them are: the Western Colorado Congress; the Western Slope Environmental Resource Council; Sierra Club; Club 20; The Nature Conservancy; the Southern and Northern Ute Tribes; the High Country Citizens Alliance; the Mule Deer Foundation; the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation; the Colorado Woolgrowers Association; the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association; and the Colorado Timber Industry Association. Government partners include: the Colorado Department of Natural Resources; the U.S. Department of Energy; CSU Cooperative Extension; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Colorado State Forest Service, and the Colorado State Historic Preservation Office.

Garner acknowledged the UP umbrella covers “very odd bedfellows.” Through collaboration, the partners have learned to listen to each other

“It’s a rather raucous group, if you will. They kind of go at it with each other pretty hot and heavy at times, but they’ve made the commitment to stay in this together,” he said.

Sherman, who is credited with raising UP’s profile to national status, said good science and community input have been vital to UP’s success.

“The public is an important team member in this collaborative partnership,” Sherman said. “There have not been any appeals to the environmental assessments on this project. The primary reason for that is communication and the partnership working together.”