COLOWYO MINE BALANCES NEEDS OF ELK AND GROUSE
How do you successfully reclaim and revegetate mining land to
benefit wildlife when deer and elk scarf down all those tender
shoots? That is a problem that many coal mining companies, including
the Colowyo Mine, have on the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains.
However, thanks to their pioneering effort, mine reclamation has
found ways to build up shrubbery, while keeping large, hungry
herbivores from denuding the landscape.
The Colowyo Mine, which was just purchased by Western Fuels from
Rio Tinto Energy America last year currently produces approximately
2.2 million tons of coal annually. All production is currently
used to fill existing contracts with Western Fuels' parent company
Tri-State Generation and Transmission's Craig Station in Craig,
CO. "Electricity responsibly produced with coal remains a
remarkable value to serve the power needs of the region,"
said Ken Anderson, executive vice president and general manager
of Tri-State. "The purchase of Colowyo Mine ensures Tri-State
will have a cost-based supply of coal to generate affordable power
for the benefit of our member electric cooperatives."
As an open pit operation, Colowyo Mine has a challenge in revegetating
the disturbed land. The operation is in a semi-arid climate at
over 7,000 feet. In fact, most of the coal in the Rocky Mountains
occurs in ecosystems of shrubby vegetation that are referred to
as "mountain brush" or "mountain shrub." This
is an important habitat type in much of the Rocky Mountains because
big game like elk and deer are concentrated in mountain shrublands
during the winter. The quality of these shrublands is often the
key to how big the population of big game will be.
Here's the problem - during the winter, the deer and elk eat
all the shrub, especially the more tasty Bitterbrush, service
berry, and Mountain Mahogany. This in turn denudes the landscape
and limits the habitat of other wildlife that needs the shrub,
including the threatened Columbian sharp-tailed grouse and sage
grouse. How could the Colowyo Mine keep the deer, elk, and grouse
all happy? And, how does the mine keep the regulators happy, when
they don't see enough shrubbery on the reclaimed land?
Mines have tried several methods to reintroduce shrubs. These
have included; transplanting native shrub islands, planting shrub
seeds along with a standard reclamation grasses, transplanting
small shrub tubelings, and strip seeding rows of shrub seed between
rows reclamation grass seed mixes. Unfortunately, nothing worked
Scientists decided that part of the problem was the type of plants
being used. Frequently, cool weather seeds are used because they
grow quickly and stop erosion. Unfortunately, these are the plants
that the deer and elk eat during the winter. Too much topsoil
was also a problem because it encouraged growth and caused the
deer and elk to stay in one place and denude the landscape rather
than move on.
Scientists decided to limit the amount of topsoil, plant "less
tasty" plants, and focus more on erosion control. They also
focused on making "micro ecoystems" more favorable for
the growth of shrub islands and fenced some shrubs so that herbivores
couldn't eat them. Limiting the amount of topsoil meant it took
longer for shrubs to grow, but there were fewer invasive plants.
But, what was most remarkable was that more than twice as many
shrubs grew in areas with only 15 inches of topsoil than in areas
with 30 inches of topsoil.
Environmentalists note that wildlife needs both shrub and grass
to thrive and what the mine did was to create a mosaic of grass
and shrub. While the grasslands are required for grazing deer
and elk, the shrub lands are needed for hiding. Therefore, where
the shrub and grasslands meet is where the wildlife lives. By
producing islands of grasslands, there are more edges where the
two ecosystems meet and where more wildlife can live.
The results of this reclamation have been dramatic. The restored
lands provide a haven for deer and elk and provide some of the
highest densities of big game in the region, although many different
policies like Colorado's commitment to bring back game animals
are also responsible.
One of the areas where the reclamation has been most successful
has been in the populations of the sharp tailed grouse. Thanks
to new thinking in topsoil management, fencing, and reestablishing
native shrubs, the mine has created breeding, nesting and brood-rearing
habitat for the Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse. Before reclamation,
the sharp tailed grouse population was so low that the government
was considering making the grouse a threatened species under the
Endangered Species Act. Not only are they residents of the area
now, the reclaimed land now has dancing grounds on it. These dancing
grounds are where grouse return for mating rituals and environmentalists
note that dancing grounds will encourage more grouse families
in the future.