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FORT COLLINS, Colo. – The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission unanimously approved the addition of three new State Natural Areas to the Colorado Natural Areas Program during its monthly meeting on Thursday Dec. 8 in Fort Collins.

Since 1977, the Colorado Natural Areas Program has worked with interested landowners and volunteers to conserve the ecosystems, species, geology and fossils that represent resources which are “uniquely Colorado.” Coordinator Brian Kurzel explained that the program enrolls only properties whose landowners support the protection of the resources on their properties. “It’s a way of acknowledging that the existing landowners are doing things very well, to recognize them for their work and to assist them in any way we can,” Kurzel said.

Two of the areas are located in southwest and are already owned and managed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The third is located on the Eastern Plains.

The three properties are:

• The 2,529-acre Miramonte Natural Area is located within the Dan Noble State Wildlife Area at Miramonte Reservoir in San Miguel County. Renowned for its excellent recreational opportunities and remarkably diverse rare plant habitats, this area also serves as an indicator of healthy sagebrush communities and provides some of the best habitat for the Gunnison sage-grouse in the county.

• North of Durango in La Plata County, 125 acres of the Haviland Lake State Wildlife Area have become the new Haviland Lake Natural Area. Plant communities common to the southern Rockies meet with Four Corners communities in interesting and unique assemblage of species. Riparian shrub lands and robust wetland vegetation at the site provide habitat for sensitive wildlife species such as the osprey and the Northern leopard frog.

• In eastern Colorado north of Idalia, the 2,240-acre Arikaree River Natural Area is part of the largest remaining naturally functioning Great Plains river system in the state. Several native and uncommon species of amphibians, fish and reptiles reside in a mature riparian corridor that includes high-quality native prairie and streamside plant communities. The area, owned by the Colorado Land Board, is a meeting ground for many bird species from the eastern and western United States and is one of the best birding areas in Colorado.

During the afternoon session, commissioners directed Colorado Parks and Wildlife staff to continue to explore the possibility of mineral development at St. Vrain State Park near Longmont. The agency is considering whether drilling restrictions and environmental safeguards necessary to protect St. Vrain State Park users and the park’s natural resources can be imposed if mineral development were to be approved within park boundaries.

Built on a series of former gravel mines, St. Vrain State Park is bisected by the St. Vrain River and is surrounded by residential areas, industrial development, Interstate 25 and Colorado Highway 119 in the middle of the heavily-drilled Wattenberg Field.

As the mineral rights owner, Colorado Parks and Wildlife can negotiate directly with a prospective operator to secure the highest level of protections for park users, wildlife, water quality and other natural resources. If drilling is approved on St. Vrain State Park, it would be limited to two 5-acre sites on the property’s margins and occur only during autumn, when local bird populations are least affected and visitation is at its lowest.  If operators accessed the minerals under St. Vrain from a neighboring property, the agency would have much less leverage to negotiate environmental protections and royalty rates.

High Plains Region manager Heather Dugan said her staff has been working closely with mineral leasing experts in the State Land Board on a draft surface use agreement and other aspects of a potential lease arrangement.

Commissioner Bob Streeter said that while the revenue from development would help to support numerous state parks, the commission’s first priority was to ensure that the park’s wildlife habitat, water bodies and recreational resources would be protected.

“I think it’s important folks understand we are looking at a unique situation here,” said Commissioner Bob Streeter. “We’re not making a broad recommendation about mineral development in state parks. We’re moving forward to make sure we maintain control of the process.”

The 14-member commission also unanimously adopted a recommendation to cut its membership to 11 while maintaining representation from traditional user groups and expanding the flexibility to attract commissioners with a special expertise in relevant areas like economics or marketing.

The proposal specifies three at-large members, two agricultural landowners or producers, two sportsmen or sportswomen, two with experience in outdoor recreation, one county commissioner, one member of a nonprofit, non-consumptive conservation group. No more than six members may be from the same political party. The recommendation will be presented as part of the merger bill to the legislature next session.

In other business, Colorado Parks and Wildlife staff updated the commission on the status of two ongoing bear research projects, including a multi-year effort that launched this year in the Durango area.

Mammals Research Program Leader Chad Bishop said researchers captured 70 different bears during the summer season and collared 26 females. The study calls for a total of 50 females to be collared.

Bishop explained the project had four main objectives.  The study’s first objective is to evaluate possible management strategies to reduce human-bear conflict, especially by reducing the availability of human food sources like garbage in a portion of Durango.

The study will also seek to quantify the effect of urban food sources on bear populations. While garbage, fruit trees and other vegetation provide ample feeding opportunities for bears in town and may serve to boost bear populations, bears in town are also more likely to be killed as a result of coming into conflict with people. This information will help biologists build better population models and may help answer the question of whether communities like Durango serve as a population source or sink for the larger regional bear population.

During the study, hunting impacts will be evaluated to determine the effectiveness of hunter harvest as a tool to manage urban-exurban bear populations. Finally, Colorado Parks and Wildlife will conduct a series of mail-in surveys to gauge residents’ awareness of the project and their attitude toward bears.

A second study headed by researcher Mat Alldredge is exploring new genetic and stable isotope techniques to determine what additional information can be gained about individual bears from hair left in hair snares. The study will explore whether bear hair could help identify the animal’s age or the type of food it’s been eating. This tool could help biologists better understand a bear population’s age class structure and identify whether bears had been obtaining food from urban sources or wild land sources.

Finally, Commissioner Chris Castilian was appointed as the liaison to the State Trails Committee by Chairman Tim Glenn. The Recreational Trails Committee coordinates trail development projects with local governments and assists the Commission with the administration of a grant program that funds recreational various trail projects across the state. Commissioners also unanimously reaffirmed a former Parks Board policy establishing the roles and responsibilities of the Recreational Trails Committee and adopt several new changes to the committee’s grant review process. The grant program is a partnership among Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Great Outdoors Colorado, the Colorado Lottery, the Federal Highway Administration’s Recreational Trails Program and the National Park Service’s Land and Water Conservation Program Fund.

The meeting was held at the Hilton Fort Collins, at 425 West Prospect Street.

The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission is a 14-member board appointed by the governor. The Parks and Wildlife Commission sets regulations and policies for Colorado’s state parks wildlife programs.

The Commission meets monthly and travels to communities around the state to facilitate public participation in its processes. The complete agenda for the December Parks and Wildlife Commission meeting can be found on the Commission web page at:
http://wildlife.state.co.us/ParksWildlifeCommission/Archives/2011/Pages/December8-92011.aspx [1].

To learn more about the commission, please visit: http://wildlife.state.co.us/ParksWildlifeCommission/Pages/Commission.aspx [2].