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BioBlitz: Taking inventory of life in Colorado

Jul 11, 2017

John Sovell, left, checks out a butterfly he caught in Spring Valley. Sovell is a researcher with the Colorado Natural Heritage Program who participated in a "bioblitz" last month.
Credit Elizabeth Stewart-Severy / Aspen Public Radio

The late June heat above Carbondale is dry and sneezy. Butterflies flutter through the sagebrush, stalked by teams of net-wielding students and scientists.

John Sovell, a wildlife biologist with the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, has caught a butterfly in his net.

“I don’t know what this is,” Sovell said.

Students gather around him with field guides, flipping pages to identify what exactly he has found. Together, they decide it’s a sagebrush checkerspot butterfly, and another species is accounted for.

Sovell is one of more than a dozen researchers who participated in last month’s “bioblitz” on a 450-acre ranch in Spring Valley.

A student botanist photographs a plant.
Credit Elizabeth Stewart-Severy / Aspen Public Radio

  Last month, teams from Colorado State University, Colorado Mountain College, the Aspen Global Change Institute and local experts took inventory of the living creatures on the property. This means at dawn, birders listened for songs and another group checked small mammal traps. There was a sonogram to detect bats, traps set for insects, and botanists poked delicately through the sagebrush.

There are several reasons for this blitz, but it starts with property owner John Powers, who is thinking about the future of his land.

"I want to do the best management I can here,” Powers said. “You've got to start out knowing what you've got before you start changing things."

The land has been in his family for more than 50 years. This is the second year that the Colorado Natural Heritage Program is helping him understand the diverse life this land supports.

David Anderson is that program’s director and chief scientist. He said this work goes far beyond one property owner — it’s all about conservation.

“We can't do any effective conservation until we have the science and data to support it,” Anderson said.

This intensive study is also meant to be educational, so it includes students from high schools in the Fort Collins area, and CMC and CSU students.

David Anderson, right, gives direction to a team of biologists participating in a "bioblitz" inventory of life in Spring Valley.
Credit Elizabeth Stewart-Severy / Aspen Public Radio

Through inventories like this, Anderson and his teams catalogue Colorado’s rarest plants and animals and then set priorities about how to manage those habitats. And it’s not always bad news. Take last year’s bioblitz in Spring Valley.

“We found a plant that is extremely rare – it's found in a very small part of the entire earth,” Anderson said.  

It’s called Good Neighbor Bladderpod, a tiny plant with grey-green leaves and round pods. It’s mostly found near Montrose, so finding it here means it actually has a much larger range than scientists originally knew.

“We are starting to see that it's not as rare as we thought it was, and we have to get out there on the ground to learn those things so that we can set our conservation priorities," Anderson said.

That means hopefully Anderson will never have to work to list the Good Neighbor Bladderpod as an endangered species.

This type of inventory can also help set a baseline to understand how changes in the climate, water and land use could impact life of all kinds. The Aspen Global Change Institute (AGCI) studies just that. Spring Valley is home to one of a dozen soil moisture monitoring stations in the Roaring Fork Valley.

"Soil moisture is a really key determinant of what plants can survive where," said Elise Osenga, a research coordinator for AGCI who joined Anderson and others in the June bioblitz.

Anderson expects that the composition of species on the ranch — and across the world — will change alongside the climate.

Birders check their lists of species after a morning listening for calls in Spring Valley.
Credit Elizabeth Stewart-Severy / Aspen Public Radio

Detailed research like this provides both pieces of the big-picture puzzle of a changing world and smaller triumphs. Participants recorded several species of birds and plants that they hadn’t found last year. Birders heard the distinctive call of a hermit thrush, and botanists used GPS to map the range of that rare plant, the Good Neighbor Bladderpod.

"Our opportunities to advance conservation in the valley are never going to get better than they are right now,” Anderson said. “So the more we can learn right now, the better job we can do for creating a sustainable future for people in the valley."

This year’s inventory will wrap up after a few more field days in August.