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Scientists and local experts ‘listen to the land’ before opening Coffman Ranch to the public

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Eleanor Bennett
Aspen Public Radio
Susan Panjabi, second from left, a botanist with the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, works with a group of volunteers to identify a small leafy plant during a three-day bioblitz on the Coffman Ranch near Carbondale. The bioblitz is part of AVLT’s ongoing effort to better understand the biodiversity on the 141-acre property before opening it to the public.

Pueden encontrar la versión en español aqui.

On a gray morning in late June, a group of about 15 scientists, students and local experts huddled together under a large open-air tent on the Coffman Ranch, which sits between the Roaring Fork River and the Catherine Store Road near Carbondale.

“I think we are expecting some weather today, you know, little sprinkles coming through, but hopefully, folks have some kind of rain gear or don't mind getting wet,” said Susan Panjabi, a botanist with the Colorado Natural Heritage Program at Colorado State University.

Panjabi helped lead the three-day bioblitz on the ranch where the group was tasked with counting as many plants as possible in a short timespan.

Over the past year, Aspen Valley Land Trust (AVLT) has been working with ecological planning firm DHM Design to come up with a master plan for the recently purchased Coffman Ranch in Carbondale.

As part of the process, they have been enlisting scientists and local experts to track the plants and animals living on the property, as well as wetland and soil health.

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Courtesy of Aspen Valley Land Trust
An intern with the Colorado Natural Heritage Program at Colorado State University uses a loop to identify grasses found on the Coffman Ranch during an open house at the end of the three-day bioblitz on June 30. CNHP scientists and several interns from the program helped lead the bioblitz.

AVLT bought the 141-acre homestead from local ranching couple Rex and JoAnne Coffman in August.

The nonprofit plans to keep some ranching and farming on the land and conserve it for wildlife habitat, as well as use it for outdoor education and public trail use.

They’re also planning some restoration work to support native plants and animals on parts of the property.

Suzanne Stephens, executive director of AVLT, is excited to share the ranch with the community.

“I think people are going to fall in love with this place, the same way that we all have,” Stephens said. “And that's the goal: to give people another place to fall in love with.”

But before they open Coffman Ranch to the public, AVLT wants to get a better sense of the land and its biodiversity.

Bud Tymczyszyn is a conservation-easement specialist with AVLT.

“We really just want to learn from the land,” he said. “And just see what it's telling us before we really do anything or make any big changes.”

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Eleanor Bennett
Aspen Public Radio
A group of scientists, students and local experts head into the field to count as many plants as possible during the three-day bioblitz on Coffman Ranch. A local ranch operation still leases land for its cattle, and AVLT plans to keep some ranching on the land with rotational grazing practices to help restore some pastures.

The latest effort to understand and track ecological conditions on the historic ranch is the three-day bioblitz.

In addition to counting plants, participants recorded animals they spotted along the way and several group members were in charge of taking soil samples and setting up plots to monitor wetland health.

Back under the open-air tent, Panjabi split the group into several smaller teams in order to cover as much of the 141-acre ranch as possible.

“And so I would really like today to try to get to those far, you know, further reaches of the property boundaries,” she said.

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Eleanor Bennett
Aspen Public Radio
AVLT Communication and Engagement Director Carly Bolliger points to three great blue herons perched on a single tree on the Coffman Ranch during the recent bioblitz. Although the focus of the three-day event was on plant species, volunteers with the Roaring Fork Audubon Society also came out one morning to count the many bird species that frequent the wetland and riparian areas on the property.

Emiliano Valseca, a junior at CSU and an intern with the natural heritage program, joined Panjabi’s group, which headed toward one end of the property to look for plants near a natural spring along the river.

He and several other interns arrived at the start of the bioblitz and had been camping on the ranch for several days.

“Yeah, we've been sleeping here right next to the cows. The cows woke us up this morning,” Valseca said. “It’s kind of nice reconnecting into nature and waking up from the alarm clock of mother earth.”

Although the participants had been primarily looking for plants, Valseca said they had also recorded several animal species.

“I've been able to see a couple of really cool animals,” he said. “Like weasels and ground squirrels that I've never seen before.”

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Eleanor Bennett
Aspen Public Radio
Tents sit near the cow pastures on Coffman Ranch. Scientists and interns from the Colorado Natural Heritage Program spent several days camping on the property for the bioblitz event in late June.

Local plant ecologist Liz Tucker, who lives next to the Coffman Ranch, volunteered to help with the bioblitz.

She led the way along a narrow cow trail through thick underbrush and took note of each plant she recognized.

“These are just really, really prickly plants called buffalo berry,” Tucker said. “And this weed is called hounds tongue, and it attaches to your pants like a little tongue, like it's got little Velcro things on its seeds and it’s pretty annoying stuff.”

When the group reached the spring, everyone pulled out their clipboards and started writing down different plant species.

“There’s a couple plants that are right here — one is mullein,” Tucker said. “And then the catnip, and there's some tansy down there. It's pretty weedy right here.”

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Eleanor Bennett
Aspen Public Radio
Drew Walters, left, who is with CSU and Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, and Bud Tymczyszyn, who is with AVLT, collect soil samples in a pasture at Coffman Ranch. As part of its long-term plan for the property, AVLT is tracking soil health to identify areas ripe for restoration.

Meanwhile, at one of the old cow pastures, Tymczyszyn prepared to take soil samples.

The pasture, noticeably drier than much of the ranch, is one of the main places that AVLT wants to track and where it wants to restore soil health.

“So, we're walking through an area that was kind of typically the ranch boneyard for a long time,” Tymczyszyn said. “So cattle have grazed this and there's been some seeding work back here, but for the most part, this was kind of the spot on the ranch that for a long time was used for burn piles and for kind of throwing ranch trash and debris.”

Accompanying him was Drew Walters, who works with CSU’s extension in Pitkin County as well as the county’s open space and trails program.

Walters and Tymczyszyn used what looked and sounded like a large drill to remove small amounts of soil from the earth. They put the soil in a plastic bag.

“So we are taking some soil samples to send off to a lab and have tested so we can know kind of what the full makeup and biology of the soil is,” Tymczyszyn said.

According to Walters, this kind of soil testing and restoration work takes time.

“It's something that we'll probably be looking at, you know, five, 10 years down the road and to see how those trends evolve after, you know, Bud and his team implement the different rotational grazing and the different restoration practices,” he said.

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Eleanor Bennett
Aspen Public Radio
Bud Tymczyszyn, left, and Drew Walters check a wildlife camera and acoustic monitor on the Coffman Ranch to see if any unusual species have been captured. As of late June, the acoustic monitor had picked up about half of the 19 bat species known to live in Colorado.

In the middle of the field, Tymczyszyn stopped to point out a wildlife camera and an acoustic monitor tied to an old tree limb.

The acoustic monitor was set up by the natural heritage program to capture bird songs, bats and amphibians.

“This is like having a herd of birders out here for a month just listening,” Tymczyszyn said. “Bats also are really hard to identify sometimes, so we’re really excited to see all of the different bat species that are out here.”

So far, they had recorded about nine or 10 bats, which is notable because there are only about 19 species of bats in Colorado.

Tymczyszyn said the camera trap has also revealed some other exciting residents on the ranch.

“Oh, man, there’s some good ones,” he said. “So, this winter we found a deer carcass out there, and so we kind of baited the game cam and we dragged it out, and the amount of stuff coming and snacking on it was pretty awesome. A lot of coyote, kind of playing with it, and a mountain lion going through was probably the coolest.”

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Eleanor Bennett
Courtesy of Aspen Valley Land Trust
Community members ask questions and learn more about the bioblitz at Coffman Ranch during an open house hosted by AVLT and the Colorado Natural Heritage Program on June 30. Over the course of three days, the teams had recorded several wildlife sightings and counted 150 different plant species and numerous insects and birds.

By the end of the three-day bioblitz on June 30, the teams had recorded several wildlife sightings and counted 150 different plant species and numerous insects and birds.

Over the next several months, AVLT will continue working with ecological planning firm DHM Design to use the biodiversity data, as well as community feedback, to inform its strategic plan for the ranch.

AVLT hopes to present its master plan to the community by early next year.

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.
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