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Centennial State Waterfowl Initiative

Partnerships between public agencies, conservation organizations and landowners are key to bringing about radical habitat changes in Colorado And the ducks have noticed!

by Daniel D. Lamoreux This article was originally published in Rocky Mountain Game & Fish Magazine. Visit their website at

In discussions of waterfowl habitat, the Prairie Pothole Region of the Dakotas has always been recognized as the prime location within the lower 48 States. Well, hang on to your Stetsons, because there’ s a new kid in town: Colorado has established a fresh standard by which to measure success.

The Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge in south-central Colorado recently recorded one of the highest waterfowl nesting densities ever documented, with more than 28 duck nests per acre.

“This is really an incredible situation,” said Bob Sanders, regional biologist for Ducks Unlimited. According to him, what really sets this achievement apart is that Monte Vista had just marginal wetlands habitat only a few years ago.

In addition to its having seen the creation of nesting habitat, the area is also notable for having drawn increased numbers of waterfowl in the fall. “Before, if you had a thousand ducks on this land it was pretty darn good,” Sanders explained. “Since the project went on line, we’ve seen peak use by about 30,000 birds. Talk about hunting opportunity! I’ve hunted all over the country, and this is the best I’ve ever had!”

The difference between what once was marginal land and what now is a virtual duck factory can be attributed to the Colorado Wetlands Initiative.

The program began in 1997 when the Colorado Division of Wildlife and its partners were awarded a Legacy Grant of $4.46 million by Great Outdoors Colorado. Partners matched the grant, growing the initiative into a $17.4 million effort.

“The partnership is the big thing,” Sanders said. “For every dollar raised in Colorado, we can leverage that to triple or quadruple (the total) with very little effort.” The primary partners in the initiative are the CDOW, Ducks Unlimited, Great Outdoors Colorado, the Nature Conservancy, the Partners for Fish and Wildlife program of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Colorado Division of Parks, and a host of Colorado private landowners.

While there are many types of habitat projects ongoing across the country, this program offers benefits not found in other areas.

First, it makes use of voluntary, incentive-based opportunities for private landowners. When all parties gain from a project’s success, the odds of success are greatly improved.

One incentive is the conservation easement. “Easements help keep ranches intact by paying (the owner) a portion of the value of that easement,” Sanders explained. “This protects the land in perpetuity. It prevents subdividing the land, allows no unnecessary improvement of roads and keeps the water rights with the land.”

This approach has helped private landowners maintain their properties for use by wildlife and allows them to continue making a living from the land in ways that do not conflict with conservation goals.

An example is the use of grasslands for ranching. “These folks do exactly what we try to do,” Sanders said. “They want to grow grass for hay and use shallowly flooded grasslands. This activity very much complements what’ s happening on the refuge, and they are providing as much, if not more, duck nesting habitat.”

Protecting private interests while enhancing wildlife habitat is a win-win situation. The Partners for Fish and Wildlife portion of the program alone has completed 82 projects covering 2,478 wetland acres and 13.5 miles of riparian habitat.

Another bonus is the program’s benefit to sportsmen. “We have two basic types of projects,” Sanders said. “One is the creation of fall migration habitat and hunting habitat. This gives hunters more options – places to set decoys and shoot birds. Second is the creation of nesting habitat to provide more birds to shoot.”

One example is the aforementioned Monte Vista NWR. The restoration project covered 1,350 of the refuge’s 14,000 acres that are open to public hunting. Common species found here include mallards, pintails, teal and Canada geese. Non-game species such as ibis, egrets, herons, sandhill cranes and the endangered whooping crane also benefit from the project.

Another example is the Russell Lakes SWA, which at more than 4,000 acres, is the largest contiguous wetland area managed by CDOW. The restoration and enhancement project covers 900 acres and provides habitat for mallards, gadwalls, cinnamon teal and redheads. It’ s also a stopover for species that are objects of concern, including sandhill and whooping cranes.

Reaching beyond the scope of waterfowl and aquatic-dependent species is the 1,724-acre Elliott SWA project. Involving an extensive restoration plan, this project cost in excess of $1 million to create a variety of habitat types, which include shallow and temporary wetlands, warmwater sloughs and riparian areas. The diverse habitats have benefited migrating birds, wild turkey, white-tailed deer, bald eagles and numerous songbirds. And, yes, hunting is allowed.

“DU functions much like a contractor in doing the projects,” Sanders explained. With funding provided through the CDOW and the partnership, DU uses high-tech GPS units to map a project site. Data is transferred to DU’ s Bismarck, N.D. office for the making of topographical maps. This is followed by the designing of levees and other water delivery systems to enhance or create wetlands. Local construction companies are contracted to build the projects under DU oversight. Once a project is complete, DU biologists work with landowners and land managers to develop management plans that get the highest quality return in habitat enhancement.

At a time when environmental management has become an extremely volatile issue across the country, this program appears to be working will in addressing major issues such as the protection of private property rights, the wise and sustainable use of natural resources, the ownership and management of public lands, and the protection of our hunting heritage.

For more information about the Colorado Wetlands Initiative, contact the CDOW Wetlands Program coordinator at (303) 291-7141, or visit on the Web at

Waterfowlers interested in taking advantage of access at public properties can look to the following areas:

Northwest: The Yampa SWA is on the Yampa River about 6 miles west of Hayden. For information, contact DOW at (970) 276-3338.

Northeast: The Tamarack SWA is 3 miles north of Crook, and includes about 14 miles of South Platte River habitat. For information, contact DOW at (970) 842-6300.

The Elliott SWA is also along the South Platte River, about 5 miles northeast of Snyder. Call the DOW at (970) 842-6300.

Southeast: The XY Ranch SWA is 1 mile east of Granada and includes over 2 miles of the Arkansas River corridor. Call the DOW for information at (719) 336-6600.

South-central: Russell Lakes SWA is 10 miles south of Saguache. The DOW number is (719) 587-6900.

Higel Ranch SWA is on the Rio Grande in the San Luis Valley. Contact the DOW at (719) 587-6900.

Rio Grande SWA is 1 mile east of the City of Monte Vista. The DOW number is (719) 587-6900.

Alamosa NWR is located about 2 miles southeast of the City of Alamosa. Call the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service at (719) 598-4021 for information, or visit the Web site at

Monte Vista NWR is managed by the same USFWS office as Alamosa, (719) 598-4021.

West-central: The Horsethief Canyon SWA is just west of Fruita along the Colorado River. The Bureau of Reclamation owns the property but the Colorado DOW manages it. Call DOW at (970) 858-3200 for information.

Information for all state wildlife areas is available on the Web: