Community Agriculture Alliance: Wildlife in the Yampa Valley

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Spring is arriving, and there is more to celebrate then just the melting of the snow. While the fall brings big-game hunters to Colorado, springtime brings another group of wildlife "hunters," or more aptly named, "watchers." Often overlooked as a major source of economy, wildlife watching brought $1.4 billion to the state of Colorado in 2006, according to the USFWS National Survey on Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation. Wildlife photographers, birdwatchers and other tourists who seek a unique wildlife viewing experience choose Colorado as a premier destination. In particular, the Yampa Valley and surrounding area offers an abundant mixture of wildlife watching opportunities.

Grouse

Routt County is home to four species of grouse; the Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, greater sage grouse, dusky (blue) grouse and the white-tailed ptarmigan. Courtship displays of the Columbian sharp-tailed grouse and the greater sage grouse draw the attention of birdwatchers from around the world, primarily during April and early May. During this time of year, in the early daylight hours, males will communally gather at historical breeding grounds (commonly called leks) where they perform elaborate courtship dances and songs. Males will drum their feet, inflate their air sacs, strut and compete with other males in an effort to impress females, which also congregate on the perimeter of leks.

Lekking behavior is not observed in all species of grouse, but it is commonly seen in species that live in open habitats such as sagebrush and grasslands. Forest dwellers such as the dusky grouse have isolated displays at smaller dispersed sites. The open nature of lek sites not only helps the birds detect predators but also allows humans the opportunity to easily view these impressive displays. Places such as North Park even set up viewing blinds through which visitors can closely watch the courtship activities of sage grouse without disturbing the birds.

Other bird species

Grouse are not the only birds that wildlife watchers can observe during the spring in the Yampa Valley. Sandhill cranes, bald eagles and numerous species of waterfowl also provide wildlife-watching opportunities.

When most people think of displaying sandhill cranes, they think of the Monte Vista Crane Festival that occurs every March, where ponds, marshes and farmed plots of grain and alfalfa on the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge provide staging grounds for thousands of sandhill cranes during their spring migration. What many people do not know is that the Yampa Valley, particularly around Hayden, is another important staging ground and nesting area for these migrating sandhills. Although the number of cranes that visit Northwest Colorado is much smaller (about 1,000 birds), they still provide an impressive viewing experience as the males dance, fan their wings, bow and jump in elaborate courtship displays. The greatest concentration of these birds can be seen in the fall, when the cranes return to the area.

The Yampa River, as well as our many lakes and reservoirs, also draw many species of migrating waterfowl and shorebirds, which show up in the greatest numbers during the spring and summer, with peak migration occurring in late May. The most common waterfowl species include mallards, cinnamon teal, American widgeon, northern shovelers and Canada geese. The common snipe, great blue heron, killdeer and American avocet are popular shorebird species.

Bald eagles and osprey also may be seen near riparian areas, where both species hunt for fish and bald eagles occasionally prey on waterfowl. Bald eagles remain in the Yampa Valley year-round but begin nesting in late March and rearing chicks in April through early May.

Mammals

The young of many Colorado mammal species are born in early to late spring, including elk and moose calves, deer and pronghorn fawns, as well as fox and coyote pups. Raccoons, porcupines and skunks also give birth in the spring. Although black bear cubs are born during the winter, they first emerge from den sites with their mothers in late April or early May.

Occasionally, breeding behavior also may be seen during the springtime, as many small mammals such as pika, marmots and squirrels begin mating shortly after emerging from hibernation. Rabbit and hares also breed and produce young from early spring through the summer.

Although viewing opportunities may exist, the Colorado Division of Wildlife urges people to keep their distance and never handle young wildlife. Many animal species temporarily leave their young to hunt or perform other daily activities, often leading people to think the young are abandoned. Typically, a parent is nearby and will return shortly. Handling young wildlife will only decrease its chance for survival.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife encourages visitors and residents of the Yampa Valley to get out and enjoy some of these amazing wildlife viewing opportunities, while always being respectful of all wildlife species and their habitats. Make sure to also recognize the rights of property owners and never trespass on private land. Landowners provide an important resource to wildlife by supplying large plots of mostly undeveloped and undisturbed land. In particular, land that has been placed in conservation easements or other Farm Bill programs through the National Resource Conservation Service provides valuable long-term habitat for grouse and other wildlife. Interested landowners should contact their local NRCS office or go online to www.co.nrcs.usda.gov to find out more about the different Farm Bill programs and how to enroll their properties.

For local watchable wildlife questions or information about viewing locations, call the Colorado Division of Wildlife's Steamboat Springs Service Center at (970) 870-2197.

Danielle Domson is a District Wildlife Manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife out of Steamboat Springs.

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