Sunday, June 21, 2015

Bison, Beaver and Butch Cassidy in Brown's Hole

Looking West into Brown's Park National Wildlife Refuge
April 27, 2015
I’m alone this week at the campground as Ranger Mike attends more law enforcement training, but the workload is light with only two rafting parties launching before the weekend. It’s time to catch up on RV projects, reading, and doing some local travel like I did last week when I explored more of Brown’s Park National Wildlife Refuge in northwest Colorado.

I went to meet the refuge staff and take the driving tour of the refuge. The refuge abuts Dinosaur National Monument on its northern borders. It is one nearly 600 national wildlife refuges and “Wetland Management Districts” in the USA that all totaled cover over 150,000,000 acres (roughly the same size as Alaska).

Like all refuges it provides sanctuary for migratory birds, harbors endangered and threatened species, and offers hunting, fishing, photography and other recreational opportunities.

Originally known locally as “Brown’s Hole” it was a favorite location for fur trappers and settlers in the 1830’s. Fort Davy Crockett [Fort Misery (Fort de Misere)] was constructed in 1837 as a trading post and as defense against attacks by the Blackfoot Nation. The fort was abandoned in the 1840's after the decline in beaver pelt prices, a falling out between proprietors of the fort due to horse thievery and excessive consumption of their main product, alcohol.

After the gold rush era the valley became a favorite wintering ground for cattle. In the literal Wild West Brown’s Hole acquired a deserved reputation as a hideout for cattle rustlers, horse thieves, and outlaws. Butch Cassidy is said to have earned his name and reputation while working for a local rancher. He returned to the region throughout his famous outlaw career.

The refuge was created in 1963 as a political trade related to the damming of the Green River in 1962 near a little town called Dutch John. The 502 foot tall Flaming Gorge Dam created a 91 mile long reservoir that can hold two years of normal water flow from the Green River. The dam is a major source of hydroelectricity for the Green River system and is the main flood-control facility. It severely impacts the flow of water into Dinosaur National Monument. Attempts have been made in the past to expand the six dam system by damming the Yampa River that flows westward through the monument and joins the Green River. Thankfully, proponents failed in that quest thus preserving one of the few free flowing white water rivers in the West.

Green River Flows East and South into Dinosaur National Monument 
Grassland plants cover nearly 1,700 acres of the 2 square mile refuge. Once the forage of herds of bison valley, the predominate plant species include the alkali sacaton, inland salt grass, western wheatgrass, and Great Basin wild rye. Northern harriers, and numerous songbirds use these grasses for nesting cover. They are also home to small mammals, like the montane vole and magnitudes larger, elk and mule deer.

Over many years grasslands becomes heavily matted. This retards seasonal regrowth and plant diversity. Prescribed burns are used to remove the matted vegetation. There are prescribed burns taking place this week in the refuge.

Another 7,612 acres consist of semi-desert shrubland. Sage grouse, Brewer’s sparrow, loggerhead shrike, Ord’s kangaroo rat, and sagebrush vole all depend upon these plants as do moose, mule deer, elk, and pronghorn that winter in the river valley.

As in the Gates of LoDore campground area Pinyon Pine and Utah Juniper dominate 1,083 acres of the refuge. Many species depend on this arid environment up and away from the river, including gray flycatchers, pinyon jays, several species of bats, and lizards.

This is also, obviously, riverine habitat that attracts a variety of waterfowl, ungulates and other animals. I have two nesting pairs of Canada Geese just across the river from the boat ramp along with numerous rabbits, black-billed magpies and other crows, jays and ravens that all seem to be thriving. Up the river a short piece I can see efforts of beavers to build their own dams. Bear and geese tracks can be seen in the river sand and silt. Mountain lions have been spotted surveying the campground from the ridge above by some campers. Mule deer commute daily along the western shore of the river. Wapiti (elk) travel up and down the game trails of the refuge. This area is still quite isolated and we itinerant humans are provided an increasingly rare opportunity to witness the varied cycles of nature.


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