The following is a guest blog post by Hannah Jacobsen, a student intern with CNHP in the Siegele Conservation Science Internship program:
The impacts of cattle grazing can still be seen along the delicate riparian area of Rifle Ranch, even after the landowners decided to forgo grazing in an attempt to recover biodiversity on their property. The riparian ecosystem found in Rifle Ranch, along with surrounding properties, still faces diverse threats which will challenge the success of restoration endeavors. One of the biggest challenges will likely be trying to find a productive way to work alongside the various stakeholders in the area, including neighboring ranches which continue to graze cattle. Additionally, the Rifle Gap Dam, which was constructed in 1967 as a means to store irrigation water, and the Rifle Creek Golf Course both sit above the Rifle Ranch property and contribute to habitat and biodiversity degradation of the riparian area. Recent research has also shown that dams can fragment river systems, prevent the deposition of silt and organic matter along downstream systems which is crucial to biota, and stop natural water flow cycles along river networks. The interests of the restoration project, and its potential for success, are thus in conflict with current land use management practices in Rifle, Colorado.
A pre-assessment of the riparian area within the Eastern face of Rifle Ranch was recently conducted, with data being gathered on water quality along with wildlife and plant biodiversity. It was clear from the initial assessment that various actions could be taken to improve the condition of the riparian area, especially as it serves for wildlife habitat. For instance, the planting of more trees and resilient plant species like willow would create more habitat and help to prevent further sediment erosion. The goal for the ranch in the future is to encourage a biodiverse environment in which native flora and fauna might better thrive. Nonetheless, with such varied and vested interests and stakeholders in the Rifle, Colorado area, it is unclear exactly how restoration efforts might be impacted by other contributing and multilayered factors (eg. Rifle Gap Dam, cattle grazing, and Rifle Creek Golf Course). Additionally, even among the scientists and conservation planners working on this restoration project there isn’t a consensus on what makes a riparian area “restored.” Nonetheless, the restoration project will provide an important, site-specific case study regarding how riparian habitat is impacted by land use and management in Rifle, Colorado.