Wildlife Paradise from Throw-Away Land

by Bob Oertel

A wildlife and bird sanctuary was probably the last thing on the minds of Fred and Nancy Thomas when they bought six acres of land to build a home on in 1972. What they got was a piece of property with a pond in the country near Cortez, CO. They wanted it, even if others didn't.

It was all that was left from a big ranch after the good agricultural land had been sold off for subdivision development and prime homesites. This little 'throw-away' chunk of land was what some might mistakenly have called "not much good for anything".

"It was overtaken with such weeds as thistle, knapweed and horehound, the worst of all," remembers Nancy. "There was also a lot of land damage from prairie dogs. Lucky for us a plague later wiped out the huge prairie dog colonies."

Today, 26 years later, the Thomases have a bird and wildlife paradise, thanks to their interest, imagination, farsightedness and continuing work. Dozens of different species of birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles make this their home or annual "stopping over for a few days" place. This is now a place many people want to visit, to study and enjoy the unusual wildlife habitat and its inhabitants.

"This has been our longtime dream and is now our hobby," said Fred, a civil engineer. "Nancy and I enjoy walking around the property every day. Nothing stays the same; there always seems to be something new, something different to see."

A Gradual Change
Soon after settling in on their new property, the Thomases began acquiring bits of adjoining land as it became available because they primarily wanted more land for cattle pasture. Piece by piece, they increased their original six acres to the present forty-seven acres.

"When did you start getting interested in this whole wildlife habitat improvement thing?" I asked Nancy.

Without any hesitation, she offered, "A lot of credit for that goes to Bob Fuller (Wildlife Biologist with the Natural Resource Conservation Service - NRCS). We checked with him about some things we wanted to do. The first thing he did was to show us what a wealth of plants and natural vegetation we had. He opened our eyes to the unusual opportunities we had here to improve the habitat for birds and animals. He should get the credit," Nancy emphasized.

Ironically, the Colorado River Salinity Program indirectly helped the Thomases to decide to go the wildlife habitat improvement route. One activity under the Salinity Program is the promotion of pipelines and sprinkler systems of irrigation (instead of the older flooding systems) to cut down salt movement off irrigated land and into the river system.

Another part of the Salinity Program is to put a concrete liner in the major dirt ditches and canals bringing water from the rivers to farms. Sometimes the dirt canals are replaced with pipe. Both of these measures virtually eliminate water losses through seepage from the canals.

Unfortunately for the national mandate to preserve wetlands, sprinkler systems in some cases dry up and erase small wetlands and other wildlife habitat in fields. The NRCS, a federal agency, tries to find landowners who might be willing to voluntarily create new wetlands, or improve old established wetlands, as a mitigation measure to replace the destroyed wetlands.

"The Thomases readily agreed to wildlife habitat development on their land when I suggested the idea to them in 1992," says Bob. "Since then they've done a superb job of creating a wide diversity of habitat to attract many kinds of wildlife."

Wetland, Upland and Woodland Habitat
Fred and Nancy have worked closely with the NRCS, the Dolores Soil and Water Conservation District and the Colorado Division of Wildlife. Their unique habitat, either created or enhanced, now includes ten acres of wetland, twenty-seven acres of upland and two acres of woodland.

One objective in improving the wetland was to create more areas of open water in addition to the one existing pond close to the house site. Open water attracts more birds and encourages nesting in adjacent wetland areas. Six shallow-water dugouts were constructed in a field where the watertable was close to the surface.

Several 18- to 20-foot-wide potholes were blasted out with dynamite while a backhoe was used for several others. "A dragline would have worked better," says Bob, "but you use what is available."

A one-acre pond was built in one field with a nesting island in the middle. Water depths around the island range from eighteen inches to eight feet. A bottom drain under the dam allows the Thomases to periodically drain the pond if they wish. The pond is managed for waterfowl brood rearing and migratory bird nesting and loafing. No fishing is allowed.

An old irrigation ditch on one side of the property supplies water year-round. Ditch berms are periodically breached, filling the potholes and flooding the adjacent field. This attracts ducks, especially in the spring before nesting.

Another field that was originally pastured was what could have been called a "low value wetland". This has been converted to a wetland complex by eliminating grazing and construction of several dugouts. Also, a water-spreading diversion was built to periodically flood the wetland, especially during the waterfowl staging period. This wetland is managed for wetland-associated bird nesting (marsh wren, blackbird, sora rail and snipe) and feeding, as well as winter cover for pheasants.

Dry land fields are planted to a mixture of drought tolerant grasses and legumes to provide protective and nesting cover for upland birds such as morning doves, pheasants and meadowlark. Field boundaries are planted to deciduous shrubs to provide food, perching and nesting cover for tree nesters.

Learning to Live with Wildlife
"We do so much enjoy sharing our land with the many kinds of wild creatures that visit us or live here," says Nancy. "But," she continues, "we have had to learn to live with some of the tricks they pull on us."

To illustrate her point, she tells me about Fred's beaver war. This battle found Fred trying to outsmart the beaver that wanted to keep plugging up the culvert under their field road. "It (the beaver) plugged the pipe every night and Fred cleared away the trash every day," she recalled. "But, at least for now, he has him (it could be a "her"!) outsmarted."

Fred unwittingly had helped the beaver by having a brushpile nearby. He had periodically burned the brush but had to stop because of prohibitions on burning. Always thinking how to do something to benefit wildlife, he left the pile as a hiding place for rabbits. However, this became a handy source of building material for the beaver.

Instead of removing the brushpile, Fred decided to keep the beaver away from the pipe by putting a wire mesh fence around the opening. The result? The beaver simply burrowed under the fence. In retaliation, Fred next anchored the wire securely with closely spaced re-bars. While stumped, at least for now, the beaver is probably pondering the next move.

Then, there is the problem of some animals chewing the bark off newly planted trees. To stop that, Fred uses a product called a "corrugated tree protector" about two feet high. This biodegradable material is wrapped around the trees, protecting them from animals while not hampering the seedling's growth.

Management an Essential Element
Fred and Nancy manage their wildlife and wetland habitat just as conscientiously as if they were growing livestock or a farm crop. "This habitat is a crop to us," says Fred, "so we do our best to manage it to achieve the most beneficial results."

For example, the few cattle (now down to five or six) the Thomases keep for their own consumption, are not allowed to graze fields where various birds are nesting. During this period from about April 1 to July 15, the cattle are moved to fields not being specifically managed for wildlife. Extra water is periodically flooded to certain areas to attract ducks and other water-loving birds.

Anxious to fully enjoy the wildlife sanctuary they have developed over the past 26 years, they're creating a trail system. "This makes it so much easier not only for us, but also for our neighbors and friends and many others to get around the area," says Nancy. Called a "watchable wildlife area and an outdoor teaching environment" by Bob Fuller, it is visited by neighbors, friends, school children, and members of churches and civic organizations.

"We welcome others to enjoy our outdoor wildlife paradise with us," offered Fred and Nancy. "Just let us know when you want to come!" L&W

For more information, contact Fred and Nancy Thomas, 432 N. Broadway, Cortez, CO 81321, (970)565-4496, fax (970)564-0264, or Bob Fuller, NRCS, 628 W. 5th St., Cortez, CO 81321, (970)565-99045, fax (970)565-8797.

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Monday, November 13, 2000 - http://www.landandwater.com/features/vol43no1/vol43no1_1.html