EAGLE COUNTY — The sagebrush scrublands on the White River National Forest are often overlooked by visitors and residents of Eagle County. But, for many local wildlife species, they are an important source of food and shelter. Species like mule deer, greater sage grouse, Brewer’s sparrow and sage sparrow depend heavily on greater sagebrush, which retains its leaves year-round, particularly for winter forage. The sagebrush scrublands of Colorado’s Western Slope are also home to a plant which is unique in the world. Harrington penstemon, which produces tall stalks of blue flowers in June and July, exists primarily in Eagle County, with small patches dispersed around Garfield, Routt, Grand, Pitkin and Summit counties.
While most visitors and residents in the Vail Valley may not have been drawn to the area by sagebrush, there are some very compelling reasons to protect these key habitats.
Decades of fire suppression and a history of overgrazing have left our sagebrush scrublands vulnerable. As the sagebrush ages, small trees like pinon pine and juniper take over. These plants offer little forage for sage-dependent wildlife and their shade leaves little opportunity for understory plants to grow.
The Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger district has acknowledged this problem and begun to take action to reverse it. In partnership with the National Forest Foundation and the U.S. Forest Service, Walking Mountains Science Center has created an internship for high school students to be involved in solving this problem.
Now in its second year, the Walking Mountains Natural Resource Internship recruits 12 local high school students to collect data on the health of sagebrush ecosystems in our area. The students gather information about pollinators, sagebrush, and scrubland plants like Harrington penstemon. The information they collect is helping Forest Service biologists determine how best to restore and maintain our sage scrublands.
In exchange for their hard work, these local students receive college credit from Colorado Mountain College, a small stipend and a summer hiking and learning about the plants and animals in their home valley.
They are also exposed to land management practices and careers in natural resource conservation.
These hard-working teens will be out hiking in areas like Berry Creek, Gypsum Creek and along the Trough Road near the upper Colorado River.
Keep an eye out for them trekking through the sagebrush as you are out hiking, mountain biking, or rafting in those areas this summer.
If you see them, offer your encouragement because they are working hard to make sure those areas remain healthy places for human recreation and wildlife alike.