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Colorado Parks and Wildlife sheds light on state’s 350 most sensitive species

Dashboard highlights leading threats across the state, agency’s progress in protecting them
A black-footed ferret looks out from a prairie dog burrow after its release. Black-footed ferrets were assumed to be extinct until 1981 when a dog discovered one in Wyoming. Black-footed ferrets, which are primarily carnivorous and feed on prairie dogs, are the only ferret subspecies native to North America. Ferrets are released in autumn months to simulate when kits usually leave their mothers. (Olivia Sun/The Colorado Sun)

How are scientists working to protect the toothless, federally endangered Colorado pikeminnow? Which species is most at risk from the state’s energy production and mining? What’s a piping plover?

The answers can be found on Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s new species conservation dashboard, which lists more than 350 sensitive species that call Colorado home and the agency’s efforts to protect them.

The public can explore at-risk species and threats they face, and track the state’s conservation work outlined in its wildlife action plan.

The recently launched site allows for more transparency on CPW’s efforts to conserve the sensitive species – from the greater prairie-chicken to the long-nosed leopard lizard – and offers more awareness to conservation partners, land management agencies, local governments and the public, David Klute, the agency’s species conservation unit supervisor, said.

It also serves as a reminder that enjoying the outdoors does not come without an impact.

Unregulated backcountry skiing and snowshoeing threaten the snowshoe hare and lynx, the dashboard shows. Rock climbing near cliffs and crevices puts birds such as the American peregrine falcon and brown-capped rosy-finch at risk. Off-roading can affect the midget-faded rattlesnake. And alpine camping can have serious impacts for bighorn sheep herds.

“We value the outdoors in Colorado and that’s where these species are,” Klute said. “So understanding when the public at large could have impacts on these and taking steps to minimize those impacts can be really important.”

To address the threat campers, hikers, mountain bikers and other trail users have on a range of species, the agency has implemented seasonal closures, added fencing to create boundaries in certain areas and established formal wildlife viewing areas, according to the dashboard.

Private landowners can also have a great impact in helping conserve at-risk species, such as the black-footed ferrets, which live almost exclusively on private land and were once assumed to be extinct. Now, biologists are making progress restoring the prairie dog-eating rodents in the Eastern Plains.

The website also identifies at-risk species the state hopes to understand better, including the eastern black rail. The birds, which used to be abundant in marshes along coasts, are now listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act because of human development, rising sea levels and coastal storms, Klute said. Colorado has the largest known interior population of the elusive birds in North America.

Biologists believe there’s a high number of the black rails that live in dense marshes along the Arkansas River in southeastern Colorado, but because they are so elusive, CPW is still working to estimate its population.

The agency’s conservation actions are categorized by its progress. Green indicates that the agency is on track to complete a conservation action, yellow or orange means it is “partially on track” to be complete, and red shows that the project has not yet been started.

Conservation efforts for some “more charismatic” species, as Klute called them, including wolves and black-footed ferrets, have received a lot of attention. Some, more divisive than others.

But there are other lesser known species, like the Gunnison sage grouse, that face a similar need for conservation. The federal government lists the birds, known for their elaborate courtship rituals and whose largest population lives in the Gunnison Basin, as threatened.

“It’s a great example of where Colorado is really responsible for the global conservation of that species,” Klute said. “If they don’t succeed here in Colorado, they aren’t going to exist anywhere else in the world.”

The dashboard tracks projects and highlights conservation needs outlined in the Colorado State Wildlife Action Plan, which every state is required to have to receive funding for conservation statewide and federal grants. Colorado’s plan ranks the threats that species face from low to high priority.

Taking early action can play a role in protecting sensitive habitats and possibly avoid recovery efforts for some species down the road, Klute said.

There have been recent efforts to get the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the pinyon jay as an endangered or threatened species. The birds, which live primarily in western Colorado and throughout the western U.S., have seen a steep decline in population partly because of the loss of its piñon-juniper woodlands habitat.

CPW is working to understand how animals that live in the state’s alpine environments – like pika, the southern white-tailed ptarmigan and the brown-capped rosy-finch – are affected by climate change. The recent monsoon moisture, and more importantly the afternoon cloud cover, help ptarmigan and others that can become “heat-stressed” in the high country.

A Colorado Parks and Wildlife researcher releases a ptarmigan during field work to study the birds. (Courtesy of Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

“So those years when we don’t get that monsoon moisture can be really stressful for a species like that, and if that happens more and more frequently, with climate change, then that could be a problem,” Klute said.

“We see our climate changing and we see changes in weather patterns and snowpack,” he said. “Understanding if those might be at greater threats because of climate change – that may or may not be the case – we’re still trying to understand that.”

CPW’s progress on its conservation actions used to appear in a PDF and now can be viewed on the interactive dashboard, which is updated regularly. Colorado’s State Wildlife Action Plan is set to be revised in 2025.

(P.S. For those still wondering, a piping plover is a small bird that makes a distinctive pipe-pipe-pipe call while it flies and often nests along the sandy shores of Colorado’s reservoirs.)

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.