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 well.
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.