West of Steamboat Springs, the Yampa River drops through a narrow gap before flowing onto a broad, 15-mile-long floodplain known as Morgan Bottom.
The area is home to many ranchers who make a living by growing hay and raising cattle in the lush lands along the river. It is also home to imperiled and iconic species, including bald eagles, river otters, and elk, and includes the best staging area for greater sandhill cranes in northern Colorado. The floodplain also contains a vast expanse of globally rare riparian forest—narrowleaf cottonwood, box elder and red osier dogwood— and plays an important role in flood abatement, groundwater recharge, and irrigation delivery.
We now know some past land management practices, including the removal of trees from riverbanks, development, and water diversions, have weakened habitats and are unsustainable for ranching operations. The loss of vegetation weakens the stability of riverbanks, worsening erosion. The tremendous force of the river finds these weaknesses, altering the river’s flow, cutting huge swaths into hay fields, and disrupting habitat for birds and fish.
The Nature Conservancy is working with partners to improve conditions for both the river and ranchers.
To date, the Conservancy has restored a 500-foot section of the riverbank on the Carpenter Ranch Preserve. Future projects include reestablishing native riparian trees and shrubs, realigning the stream channel and creating fish-friendly structures that allow irrigators to receive water more reliably.
“We hope this large-scale, comprehensive way of working with ranchers and wildlife experts to assess and tackle river restoration will serve as a model for other large river systems in the region,” says Terri Schulz, Colorado director of landscape science and management.