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Study finds more rare plant, animal species in Jeffco

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Open Space Division says data-based conservation efforts working

By Laura Bernero

For the Courier

A two-year study in Jeffco has identified 35 rare plants and 11 rare animal species that the county will try to protect in its future conservation efforts and open space plans.

The biodiversity survey, which also identified one rare fungus, was conducted by scientists from the Colorado Natural Heritage Program over the past two growing seasons. County Open Space planners will use the data to help make environmentally conscious choices when planning open space areas, parks and trails.

Among the rare animals discovered in the county were the ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla), a small species with black and white stripes that breeds in only a few locations along the Front Range; and the black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus), which has eight large population groups on the east side of the county.

Two severely endangered plant species and two animal species documented in the survey are registered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service as rare, including the Colorado butterfly plant and the Preble’s Meadow jumping mouse, found among the streams in Jefferson County.

Surveyors also discovered a red-orange fungus species known as an “earthstar” fungus (Mycenastrum corium) that was very rare for its location. It looks puffy and round most of the time and opens into a star shape when it is ready to produce spores.

“We actually found so many things it is hard to describe," said botanist Pamela Smith, who surveyed plants and plant communities for the project. "Jefferson County is probably one of the more developed counties in terms of residences and cities along the Front Range, and still so many ecosystems are thriving here.” 

Smith and ecologist John Sovell, Heritage Program scientists who played key roles in the project, presented findings at the Jefferson County Open Space Advisory meeting July 12.

The Jeffco Open Space Division provided most of the funding for the project and contracted the Colorado Natural Heritage Program to conduct the survey beginning in 2010. A grant from the Environmental Protection Agency provided additional funds for scientists to conduct an in-depth analysis of wetlands.

The survey required the participation of ecologists, botanists, animal experts and volunteers who monitored plant and animal activity over two growing seasons, enough time to accurately examine the behavior and prevalence of each species.

Mapping experts and data managers logged the data into state and national databases to be used by planners and researchers in the future.

“We use the survey results mostly for land management purposes,” said Frank Kunze, planning supervisor for Jeffco Open Space.

“For example, we always have looked at doing trails on the front side of Lookout Mountain, but we discovered that there are some rare butterfly species that are up there. So we decided not to put a trail there because we’d go right through the middle of their habitat, and we didn’t want to fragment it,” Kunze said.

A similar biodiversity study was conducted by the Heritage Program in 1993, but a new survey was needed to keep the database information current and register new species and landscape changes.

“After 20 years, a lot of things change. There are new developments, and species come and go,” Kunze said.

After the ‘93 survey, the county's data-based conservation purposes bore fruit: Scientists recorded 25 additional rare plants and three more rare animals in the 2012 survey than in 1993. Trails and open space areas were built with sensitivity to the rare species and plant communities, allowing them to thrive, Smith said.

“About 65 percent of the potential conservation areas we laid out in the 1993 study have now become some sort of an open space and have been preserved. So I think that contributed heavily to our improved findings,” Smith said.

The Heritage Program, associated with the Warner College of Natural Resources at Colorado State University, collects and maintains data on the status and location of Colorado’s threatened species, and has collaborated with counties across the state.

The program has established a growing relationship with Jefferson County and will continue to monitor the ecosystems in the area as needed.

“I thought the report was really well received, and we had a great opportunity to let the commissioners know what we had done and how this information can be used for conservation,” Smith said.

More information

• The full Colorado Natural Heritage Program report is available on the organization’s website, www.cnhp.colostate.edu.

• The Jefferson County Open Advisory Committee meets monthly. The next meeting will be  Sept. 6 at 7 p.m. at the Jeffco Open Space Administrative Office, 700 Jefferson County Parkway, Suite 100, in Golden.