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Biodiversity study sheds light on how to protect the Roaring Fork watershed

Courtesy of the Watershed Biodiversity Initiative
Jamie Werner, left, and Tom Cardamone, center, of the Watershed Biodiversity Initiative, accompany Lee Grunau of Colorado Natural Heritage Program to collect field data for the biodiversity study in the summer of 2019. The three are working on maps that will show areas of high biodiversity in the Roaring Fork watershed.

As the impacts caused by human development and the climate crisis worsen, native plants and animals such as elk, deer and bighorn sheep are declining in our region. In response to this, a group of local stakeholders conducted a three-year biodiversity study of the entire Roaring Fork River watershed.

“Rather than let it continue to unravel, identifying the best places to knit biodiversity back together seems like the best practice,” said Tom Cardamone, a local ecologist and executive director of Watershed Biodiversity Initiative.

According to Cardamone, the idea behind “The Roaring Fork Watershed Biodiversity and Connectivity Study” is to better understand what habitat areas of the 928,640-acre watershed have the most potential for biodiversity and should be protected or restored.

Courtesy of the Watershed Biodiversity Initiative
This digital map of the Roaring Fork watershed was created by Matt Annabel for the Watershed Biodiversity Initiative’s biodiversity study. The watershed includes the Fryingpan, Roaring Fork and Crystal River drainages.

The local nonprofit Watershed Biodiversity Initiative was created in 2018 to undertake the study. Its partners include the U.S. Forest Service, Aspen Valley Land Trust, and Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, among others.

The initiative worked with scientists from the Colorado Natural Heritage Program to collect field data across all the main drainages, elevations and habitat types in the watershed.

This data is now being combined with satellite imagery to create a set of maps that depict ecological conditions and biodiversity hot spots.

“This whole project really is about a community effort toward a common goal that I really believe is shared throughout this whole watershed,” Cardamone said.

Mark Fuller
Courtesy of the Watershed Biodiversity Initiative
Mount Sopris provides a majestic backdrop for a group of mule deer grazing in Missouri Heights. According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, deer populations declined statewide from roughly 600,000 in 2006 to about 433,000 in 2018.

The Watershed Biodiversity Initiative will be releasing the maps and the final results of the study to the public in the coming weeks.

Aspen Public Radio spoke with Tom Cardamone about the study and how to protect the land and wildlife that make the Roaring Fork River watershed a unique place to live.

Listen to the conversation above.

Eleanor is an award-winning journalist and Morning Edition anchor. Eleanor has reported on a wide range of topics in her community, including the impacts of federal immigration policies on local DACA recipients, the Valley’s COVID-19 eviction and housing crisis, and hungry goats fighting climate change across the West through targeted grazing. Connecting with people from all walks of life and creating empathic spaces for them to tell their stories fuels her work.