Prairie Canyon Ranch Riparian Restoration Project

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by Toby Sprunk, Douglas County Open Space

 Prairie Canyon Ranch before restoration
Prairie Canyon Ranch before restoration.

Douglas County Open Space acquired the Prairie Canyon Ranch in March 2000. The 978-acre ranch is located upstream from Castlewood Canyon State Park near Franktown. The ranch was purchased for $3.3 million with funds from the Douglas County Open Space Sales Tax Fund and Great Outdoors Colorado. The Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust holds a conservation easement over a portion of the property. The ranch includes portions of the Black Forest, Cherry Creek, rocky bluffs, canyons, spring fed ponds, hay meadows, and large tracts of shortgrass prairie dominated by western wheatgrass and blue grama. The area (specifically Castlewood Canyon) was recognized by the Colorado Natural Heritage Program and is likely home to the federally threatened Preble’s meadow jumping mouse as well as numerous rare fern species. Other species known to inhabit the area include black bear, mountain lion, pronghorn, deer, elk, prairie falcons, canyon wrens, great blue herons, and prairie rattlesnakes.

The area is closed to the public except for guided hikes, horse rides, and school groups in order to protect the canyon habitat.

While livestock on the County’s side had been excluded from the riparian area, the adjacent landowner’s heifers were nearly permanent fixtures along the creek. Throughout the summers of 2000 and 2001, we observed continued bank degradation, erosion, ever-increasing diffuse knapweed infestations, and decreasing native vegetation. The water in Cherry Creek already contains naturally high levels of phosphorus and continuous degradation from livestock only exacerbated the situation.

In 2001 we approached the adjacent landowner about possibly allowing the County to fence his cattle out of the riparian area to restore the banks, improve water quality, and allow the return of native vegetation. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of this situation was the response of the landowner about this problem. Having been ranching in the area his entire life, the landowner said “Well, this is what the creek looks like, it has always looked like this.” In fact, he continued, “I don’t think willows will grow here.” He said this despite the presence of healthy and dense willows just over the fence in Castlewood Canyon State Park. This was a perspective that was difficult to share or comprehend, but after all, we were asking him to give up valuable forage in exchange for a cause he thought was pointless. As part of the negotiation, Douglas County offered to pay for the lost forage, which he accepted.

 Prairie Canyon Ranch after restoration.
Prairie Canyon Ranch after restoration.

In 2001, the adjacent landowner agreed to allow Douglas County Open Space to construct a fence to exclude cattle from the riparian area. In October of that year the fence was built at a cost of $10,000. Two water gaps were included to allow his cattle limited access to the creek. The cooperation of the landowner has allowed tremendous recovery to occur and without his generosity the project would not have been completed.

After four years of effective cattle exclusion, the streambanks are completely covered with native vegetation, mainly consisting of sedges and rushes. Additional shrubs, including coyote willow, peachleaf willow, chokecherry, wild plum, and currents were planted in 2003, 2004, and 2005 using volunteers and staff. During the summer of 2005, the banks of Cherry Creek were almost entirely covered with native vegetation, most of which returned naturally. Northern leopard frogs, which were rarely seen in previous years, are now commonly encountered along the banks, as are numerous reptiles, fish, insects, and birds. The vegetation has returned so completely that the County is now considering allowing the canyon to be grazed again using a high-intensity short duration regime. Since biodiversity is largely a function of succession and disturbance, we now feel limited duration grazing may facilitate greater plant diversity. The Douglas County Engineering Department, which deals with storm.water management and other water quality issues, was especially interested in the results of this project. The water quality benefits are considered enormous, especially when compared to the high costs of structural “engineered” solutions to erosion and sediment loading. We are hopeful that future projects may be jointly funded by Open Space and Engineering. As a result of this project we are also considering “Purchase of Management Agreement” type projects where landowners allow riparian restoration projects on their land with most costs being absorbed by the County Open Space Division. Our program works under the assumption that ownership is not a prerequisite to exciting and positive conservation and we look forward to continued success with a variety of public and private partners.