What makes the gateway to our community special? We probably all have our own answer. To me, the most precious aspect of our gateway is the open space and agricultural land we see from Routt National Forest as we drop down from Rabbit Ears Pass into the Yampa Valley.
Newcomers marvel at our rural landscape, noting how lucky we are. But those who have worked hard to preserve these lands know it is not a matter of luck. Many types of land use planning tools have been implemented over decades to direct growth to where it is most suitable, preserve habitat where it is most sensitive and provide for continued agricultural operations where they are most appropriate. Strong partnerships have made it all possible. The city of Steamboat Springs’ Legacy Ranch is a good example of this.
Part of the overall purchase of the Yampa Valley Land & Cattle Co. in the late ’90’s, Legacy Ranch is a place where wildlife, agriculture and people co-exist. If you don’t know where it is, you are not alone. Every day hundreds of people drive by without giving it a second glance. At the corner of Colorado Highway 131 and U.S. Highway 40, the ranch’s 131 acres provide habitat for nesting sandhill cranes, elk and numerous species of grassland birds.
The partnerships that have been built there are key to the ranch’s successful operation. The Yampa Valley Land Trust holds a conservation easement that was designed to preserve open space, ranch land and wildlife habitat. Yampatika leads educational programs, ensuring appropriate public access.
The city leases the land for agriculture, working with the lessee to make sure the timing of haying does not impact nesting grassland birds. And smaller scale agricultural projects include a partnership with Routt County Extension’s 4-H program to see that kids can experience ranch life by raising livestock on site.
As the importance of Legacy Ranch to nesting grassland birds — specifically bobolinks — becomes more well-known, the city is developing new partnerships to ensure their survival. In the coming year, a more robust bird monitoring program will be established, working with the Yampa Valley Birding Club and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
The monitoring program could be enhanced by lessons learned at The Nature Conservancy’s Carpenter Ranch where the conservancy used thermal imagery, a drone with a heat sensing camera, to detect potential bobolink nests. They then deployed volunteers to ground truth these sites and verify the presence of bobolinks.
This type of monitoring allows nests to be located from a distance, eliminating the need for people to be on site, potentially drawing predators to nest locations. Locating nests and understanding where the birds are in their nesting cycle is not only important to their conservation but also important in making sound land use decisions.
The conservation easement that guides activity on tLegacy Ranch seeks to protect the viewshed (our gateway), wildlife, agriculture, historic properties and more.
Striking a balance between land conservation and land use can be challenging, particularly given the constraints of an easement. But I am optimistic that this year’s small investment in gathering data on how birds are using Legacy Ranch will result in a large payoff in developing optimal haying locations and potentially contributing to the long-term breeding success of bobolinks.
While not listed as “Species of Greatest Conservation Need” in Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s State action plan, bobolinks are one of 432 species on the 2016 State of the Birds “Watch List,” meaning that they are “most at risk of extinction without significant conservation actions to reverse declines and reduce threats.”
I thank the city’s Parks, Open Space and Trails Division and its partners for seeking to take conservation actions that would protect the bobolinks at Legacy Ranch, while still allowing for the property’s robust use.
Sonja Macys is a member of the Steamboat Springs City Council.