The Virgin River originates just north and east of Zion National Park and flows through southwest Utah, northwest Arizona and eventually all the way to Lake Mead. It is a critical source of life for a remarkable array of ecosystems. With parts of the watershed in the Mojave Desert, Great Basin, Utah High Plateaus and Colorado Plateau, the river is largely responsible for making Washington County one of the richest “hot spots” of biodiversity in the United States.
From Joshua tree forests to aspen meadows, this region boasts an elevational gradient equaled by few places in the West. The river supports a landscape with 40 state sensitive species, 12 federally-listed species and six native fish. Its critical riparian corridor is vital for nesting, wintering and migration for an amazing assemblage of neotropical birds including the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher, phainopepla, vermilion flycatcher, Wilson’s warbler, and many more.
The Nature Conservancy’s Work on the Virgin River
“We’re working with local partners like the Virgin River Program and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources to explore ways to sustain a healthy river for people and wildlife,” explains Elaine York, the Conservancy in Utah’s West Desert Regional Director. Ninety percent of all wildlife in desert environments is found within one mile of rivers, and the Virgin is no exception.
As such, the Conservancy has been working on several different fronts, with a variety of constituents, to protect and preserve the Virgin River. Some examples include:
- The Conservancy and the Virgin River Program joined together to purchase a riverside property located in a key 10-mile stretch of river corridor between the towns of Virgin and Rockville—near the gateway to Zion National Park. “The 27-acre tract is situated along a section of river that supports a high diversity of wildlife and stable populations of four native fish—it’s one of the most pristine riparian corridors in the American Southwest,” says Rick Fridell, a biologist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. While this initial purchase is small, the Conservancy and its partners view it as a step forward in the protection of both public and private lands in this valuable corridor.
- The Nature Conservancy is also partnering with a number of local, state and federal partners on Virgin River riparian restoration (east and west of Zion National Park) on public and private lands. Riparian restoration work is also about to begin in the Virgin to Rockville segment of the river, and on the east side of Zion National Park, with the help of the Bureau of Land Management and several private partners.
- Working with the Virgin River Program, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and the Washington County Water Conservancy District, the Conservancy is helping to expand a study of water flow patterns and temperature fluctuations which are key to the health of at-risk native fish populations. The study helps biologists and water managers understand the flow requirements and temperatures needed to keep the native fish populations thriving. Such information will be critical for water managers to develop water-release strategies that are vital for the native fish.
“There’s significant momentum around efforts to protect the Virgin,” summarizes York. “With all of the partners working toward a shared vision, we have real hope for the river’s sustainable future. The vitality of the West, and all of its amazing places and plants and animals, is in some way tied to water.”