Colorado grasslands and taxpayers get boost from Shortgrass Prairie Initiative
Fri, Mar 13, 2009 at 12:35 PM
By The Nature Conservancy
The Nature Conservancy and Colorado Department of Transportation have completed a seven-year project that protects 32,000 acres of critical prairie habitat and also saves money for taxpayers. The national award-winning project — known as the Shortgrass Prairie Initiative — was designed to make regulatory compliance more efficient and fulfill CDOT's future environmental requirements through proactive conservation easements and long-term management.
Chris Pague, senior conservation scientist for the Conservancy in Colorado, says that balancing between the burdens of a growing state and the needs of a fragile natural world will not be an easy task.
Maintenance and expansion of roads can cause unavoidable damage to terrestrial and riparian habitat directly adjacent to the roadside. For that reason, CDOT works with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure necessary precautions are taken and any irreparable damage is mitigated. This process was streamlined during the initiative, resulting in substantial and cost-effective conservation.
The SGPI will continue to ensure that CDOT projects that could affect present or future federally listed species are properly mitigated on the Eastern Plains. In addition to CDOT's best on-site management practices, protecting land in areas not directly impacted by a highway will allow species to enjoy uninterrupted, viable habitat.
CDOT executive director Russ George explains that environmental factors are an essential part of every project plan and decision, in the same way engineering, economic and other factors are considered.
The initiative is expected to save up to $30 million in CDOT project costs over the next 20 years. In addition, the original goal of preserving 15,000 acres was far surpassed when the Conservancy was able to leverage the buying power of $5 million to preserve more than 32,000 acres.
According to research conducted by Conservancy scientists, grasslands are the least protected and most threatened landscapes on Earth. Since they contain a rich diversity of plant and animal species, in Colorado, these areas are especially vulnerable to the effects of housing developments, agriculture, energy and infrastructure development, invasive species, altered fire regimes and excessive groundwater extraction.
The Conservancy in Colorado's state director, Charles Bedford, is working to protect 500,000 acres of prairie grasslands in the next five years through partnership with organizations such as CDOT, which he feels will be the only way to preserve these irreplaceable landscapes for future generations.
All of the transactions under the initiative were voluntary conservation agreements with active cattle ranchers, wherein they will work to manage for habitat as a part of their agricultural operation. The final transaction in the initiative conserved 4,200 acres of viable habitat for the lesser prairie chicken. Its numbers have dwindled significantly over the past 100 years and it is currently being considered for the federal endangered species list.
The success of the initiative was made possible by a large and diverse group of partners including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Colorado Natural Heritage Program, Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory and Colorado Division of Wildlife.
MNN is working with The Nature Conservancy to bring you state-by-state environmental information.
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