Comprehensive Statewide Wetlands Classification and Characterization Project


Submitted by Denise Culver and Ric Hupalo, Colorado Natural Heritage Program


What types of wetlands exist across Colorado’s landscape? What types of vegetation exist within them? What are their functions or attributes? Which types are rare and where are they located? Classification is often considered the first step in understanding and defining the nature and dynamics of habitats in order to properly manage, restore, and protect them, as well as directing limited conservation resources and monies to the specific places where they will have the greatest impact. In 1999, the Colorado Natural Heritage Program (CNHP), in partnership with the Colorado Department of Natural Resources (CDNR) Division of Wildlife’s (DOW) Wetlands Program initiated a Statewide Wetlands Classification to answer these questions as a key component of the on-going effort to define a Statewide Wetlands Strategy model for Colorado. This project is not only an essential and necessary tool to protect Colorado’s wetlands, but can serve as a model conservation approach for other western states to follow.

The Comprehensive Statewide Wetlands Classification and Characterization (CSWCC) is a multi-year project designed to develop a tool for community-based conservation and protection of Colorado’s wetlands and their biodiversity. The CSWCC creates a floristic wetland classification for Colorado following the U.S. National Vegetation Classification System (USNVC), the national standard for classification and inventory (Anderson et al. 1998; Maybury 1999). The primary goal was to utilize the abundant data collected by previous vegetation studies of Colorado’s wetlands. The classification will be based on more than twenty field seasons of quantitative data collection throughout the state. The wetland classification will extend, and potentially refine, the current most comprehensive riparian classification of Colorado (Kittel et al. 1999), by including data from non-riparian wetlands and other researchers (e.g., Dr. David Cooper, CSU).

Phase One (FY 1999) of the CSWCC collected and synthesized existing data (4,511 plots), identified and collected data on gaps, and stratified the entire data set into nine Hydrogeomorphic (HGM) subclasses based on Dr. David Cooper’s HGM Classification (Cooper 1998). Phase Two (FY 2000) will complete the classification of the stratified data set; rank and prioritize each wetland plant association in terms of imperilment and biodiversity significance; and write or revise existing plant association abstracts with known ecological and environmental data. Phase Three (proposed for FY 2001) will complete the characterization of the wetland plant associations, as well as collect data on little known wetland types (e.g., iron fens, introduced or non-native, prairie seeps, and playas).

As part of Phase I, a pilot project was initiated between CNHP and the DOW’s Riparian Mapping Project (see Greenline Vol. 11, No. 3). This pilot, performed in South Park (Park County), documents the methodology and effort to cross reference CSWCC with the DOW’s Riparian Mapping units. The South Park pilot project provides a comprehensive mapping project for federal, state, and private land managers. Coupled with CNHP’s Statewide Wetland Classification, it is the necessary tool for managing and preserving South Park’s riparian wetlands. Most importantly, this project as part of the CSWCC reflects a true interagency, cooperative effort that recognizes the importance of classifying, mapping, protecting, and managing unique riparian habitats.

 Denise Culver at Telluride
Denise Culver, at CRA Conference in Telluride.

Literature Cited

Anderson, M., P. Bourgeron, M. T Bryer, R. Crawford, L. Engelking, D. Faber-Langendoen, K. Gallyoun, K. Goodin, D. H. Grossman, S. Landall, K. Metzler, K. D. Patterson, M. Pyne, M. Reid, L. Sneddon, and A. S. Weakley. 1998. International Classification of Ecological Communities: Terrestrial Vegetation for the United States. Volume II. Arlington, VA: The Nature Conservancy.


Cooper, D. J. 1998. Classification of Colorado’s Wetlands for Use in HGM Functional Assessment: A First Approximation. In: Characterization and Functional Assessment of Reference Wetlands in Colorado. Submitted to CO Department of Natural Resources, Denver, CO by CO Geological Survey, CO School of Mines, and CO State University.


Kittel, G. M., E. VanWie, M. Damm, R. Rondeau, S. Kettler, A. McMullen, and J. Sanderson. 1999. A Classification of Riparian Wetland Plant Associations of Colorado: User Guide to the Classification Project, Colorado Natural Heritage Program, Colorado State University, Ft. Collins, CO.


Maybury, K. P. editor. 1999. Seeing the Forest and the Trees: Ecological classification for Conservation. Arlington, VA: The Nature Conservancy.