Learning to Read the Environment and Tell Its Stories

by Jessica Young and Butch Clark


 Students along the Tomichi

During sparkling days last autumn in the high country, students at Western State College prepared plans for baseline monitoring of wetlands and riparian areas along the Tomichi Creek east of Gunnison, Colorado. These students were in Dr. Jessica Young’s class on environmental monitoring, one of several courses in the College’s new Environmental Studies Program. Their task was to establish a foundation for long-term monitoring that could then be continued with consistency by later classes. Monitoring involves learning about how to be aware, how to see, and how to understand. It is also about learning how to do these things safely in many different kinds of situations and conditions. Students do not go out alone and plans call for someone to be the “lifeguard” when working in or along stream banks – especially during high water at the site.
The monitoring site has become known, at least among the students, as the Clark property. Tomichi Creek meanders across it for almost two miles. Little stream channelization has occurred over the years, but railroad grades and highway construction did cut off meander bends. It was ranched from the late 1800’s until 1987. Many stands of cottonwoods, willows, and alders remain in the floodplain unlike many nearby areas. In 1996 about 235 acres, essentially the riparian area and irrigated meadows, were placed into the Federal Wetland Reserve. Since 1996, management can generally be described as a “hands-off approach”. The idea behind this approach is that given a chance and some time, the streams, wetlands, and riparian areas have the ability to restore themselves. Early observations and monitoring indicate that restoration has already occurred. In just over a decade, native grasses, shrubs, and trees are returning to the property. Wildlife is increasing as well.
Students from Western State College have been using the property for the past two decades. One of the last master’s theses, completed prior to the college losing its masters program in the late 1980’s, was a stream survey and baseline assessment of the property. This thesis provided a foundation for teaching environmental monitoring and using the property as an outdoor laboratory. The property’s proximity to the campus (within 10 miles) offers a place for students to learn and practice techniques such as water sampling, vegetation sampling, aquatic invertebrate surveys, geomorphological studies, and much more. Long-term monitoring will hopefully contribute towards interpretation of results from other research projects, and to tracking trends in water quality and vegetation related to land use changes in the lower Tomichi Creek Valley. As a part of their courses, students are also learning how to interpret and present data using advanced technical tools such as Global Information Systems (GIS). One team of students directs the input of data into a database accessible for future classes and other interested researchers. Information can then be analyzed and presented in maps. Students also have presented their results, using digital slide shows and posters, to the larger Gunnison Community.
The Environmental Studies monitoring class in the new major was first offered in Spring 2001. The students had a challenging time. Not much was green and growing in March or even April in the Gunnison Basin. This first group of students focused on developing monitoring plans rather than collecting baseline data. During the last weeks of a Gunnison spring, ice left the stream, snow melted, waterfowl returned, and vegetation greened. Certainly, plant identification became easier. Students from the Fall 2001 class were able to gather some baseline data by laying out transects, taking digital photos, and mapping many locations for future monitoring into a GIS base. The class split into different groups for their monitoring projects. One group worked on noxious weeds, particularly Canada Thistle (Cirsium avense). Two indigenous insects may be potential bio-controls for this weed: a Lace Bug (Tingidae family) and an aphid (Aphidoide family). The insects seem to be present when thistle plants appear unhealthy and under significant stress. A combination of these insects and possibly others, such as butterfly nymphalids, may offer help in management strategies for this weed in riparian and wetland areas. The monitoring of the Canada thistle is also structured to investigate possible relationships between thistle and pocket gophers (Thomomys spp.). Students wearing sandals and shorts learned to be cautious when walking through healthy or dried thistles.
Another student group focused on understanding the presence and distribution of beavers on the property. The existing literature is not too helpful in suggesting ways to monitor numbers and behavior of beavers living in banks of large streams as opposed to lodges in ponds. Students devised techniques such as walking stream banks to identify current activity by measuring slide tracks and willow cuttings. These features were photographed and plotted on the GIS system for future reference, as were sites of caches of branch cuttings tethered to stream banks near dens. Students rose before dawn and stayed after dark spying on beavers with a night scope for their research. Long-term efforts from this initial survey include looking at the beavers’ influences on restoring degraded habitat areas.
The condition and diversity of willows is often seen as an indicator of the overall health of a riparian community. The group of students working on the willows found that the challenge in monitoring willows usually begins with identification – something much easier to do in the early fall than early spring! Transect lines were marked by placement of T-stakes and again GIS records were made for each location. Attention was paid to evidence of beaver activity and to where willows appeared to be crowding out thistles. Counting small willow shoots in tall grass was a challenge in some of the thick stands of willows that have recovered during the past 15 years on the property.
Since the late 1980’s several collections of macro-invertebrates have been made at different locations on the property. Sometimes this was part of a specific research project and often it was a class exercise. Changes in population structure and trends are useful indicators of water quality and changes in the conditions of the streambed. Much of the previous information is being assembled and a methodology for future classes was established based on existing EPA rapid bioassessment protocols. At this time the focus is upon relative prevalence and diversity of Mayflies, Stoneflies, and Caddisflies (Ephemeroptera, Plecoptera and Trichoptera). These are compared with numbers and species of true flies (Chironomidae). Earlier studies had identified large numbers and diversity of aquatic beetles. These, too, may be monitored in the future. Design of a monitoring plan for algae is also underway. These efforts are intended to benefit from, and also complement, water quality monitoring by the U.S. Geological Survey at a site on the property.
Finally, a student group set up a monitoring program for the Gunnison prairie dog (Cynomys gunnisoni). Normally, prairie dogs are not a subject of concern in riparian areas. However, much of the past habitat for the Gunnison prairie dog was along the drier edges of the riparian corridor. Here they could establish towns in the deeper soils of high flood plain deposits. With appropriate permits, some prairie dogs were relocated to the Clark property in 2000 when the existing town was about to be graded for housing and shopping development. Most such relocations in the past have not been very successful in other areas. The prairie dogs were relocated in a promising, remote, dry site bounded by a steep hillside and wetlands. Monitoring both the population that survived the translocation and changes the prairie dogs caused on the local vegetative community may suggest improvements in techniques and timing for relocating prairie dogs where land development will destroy their towns. However, students were not the only monitors of the prairie dogs. During their monitoring, students observed activities of natural predators such as coyotes, red-tailed hawks, golden eagles, and badgers.
Overall, this project has been a wonderful experience for the students, their instructors, and the land owners. Monitoring is really a first step where the gathering and sharing of information leads to planning for the property and possibly for our entire community. On the Clark property, it is also an important step in the longer journey of each of the participating students. As Aldo Leopold stated, “When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect”. The students’ work on the land helped them to understand and appreciate it and to develop their own land ethic.

Colorado Riparian Association