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A vision for better habitat becomes a reality

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Members of the Black Canyon Audubon Society chapter identified 30 bird species on Kevin and Jackie Parks' wetland conservation easement between Hotchkiss and Paonia Saturday.

A dozen members of the Black Canyon Audubon Society toured a 42-acre conservation easement owned by Kevin and Jackie Parks last weekend. In the early morning hours the birders, biologists and conservationists passed through pristine wetlands teeming with wildlife, observed nesting great blue herons, and identified some 30 individual bird species, among them the belted kingfisher, black-crowned night heron, purple martin and western wood-pewee. From the bank of the North Fork of the Gunnison River, swollen from spring runoff, they watched an immature red-tail hawk sun itself in a towering snag.

"Usually we see signs of geese and ducks and teal," said Kevin Parks, who joined the tour. For some waterfowl species it's a migration stopover, for others it's a place to nest. But today, they seemed to be playing hooky.

Biologist Adam Petry, who led the tour, thanked Parks and his family for allowing access to the land, and for making it "a place where we can enjoy birding on a morning like today."

"I want to extend a thank you to each of you for coming up," said Parks. "We take great pride in sharing this special place."

Tucked midway between Hotchkiss and Paonia, the Parks property borders the Campbell & Sons Ranch and the North Fork of the Gunnison River. Just south of the wetlands, Parks' great-grandparents, James and Cora (Morrell) Parks, homesteaded the land in 1899.

In a Dec. 29, 2010, Back Page article Parks recalled growing up on the land, "a magical place" teeming with waterfowl, migratory birds and other wildlife. All along the valley floor a "string of pearls" made up of wetlands and other landscapes provided habitat for all kinds of wildlife. Hunting was great, said Parks.

But a short seven years ago the landscape was much different. From the 1950s into the 1970s an open pit gravel mine operated on the property. The natural flow of water across the land was altered. The heron nests were largely abandoned, waterfowl habitat was destroyed, invasive tamarisk and Russian olive trees clogged the forest floor and river bank, and rank vegetation on the dried-up land replaced thriving cattail and reed marshes.

The "wetlands" looked more like a swamp, said Parks. Stagnant ponds provided ideal mosquito-breeding habitat. In 2005 Parks partnered with the North Fork Mosquito Abatement District on an experimental mosquito mitigation project. In 2006 he contracted the mosquito-borne West Nile disease.

In 2010, the Parks family partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to rehabilitate the wetlands under the federal Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program (PFW). PFW collaborates with Great Outdoors Colorado (funded by the lottery), Ducks Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy, local water and conservation districts and others to assist landowners with voluntary habitat improvement projects. Ideal projects benefit federal trust species including migratory birds, threatened and endangered species and other wildlife. Since it began in 1988, PFW has assisted with more than 1,300 projects in Colorado, and helped to restore and protect more than 36,000 acres of wetlands, 384 miles of streams and 167,365 acres of uplands.

The Parks land was an ideal candidate for the PFW program. In 2010, Parks told the DCI, it offered "an opportunity to turn back time." Kevin and Jackie committed $20,000 to the project, and PFW's partners matched it with $22,000.

At the time, Rick Schnaderbeck was a biologist with the USFWS, and the assistant state coordinator for PFW. In surveying the property as a potential project, Parks described to Schnaderbeck the rich wetlands he grew up with, the abundance of waterfowl, the nesting great blue herons, and the hunting opportunities. Schnaderbeck surveyed, listened and came up with a plan, said Parks.

Between February and June 2011, workers eliminated an existing ditch and levee spoil, constructed an oxbow at the lower end of the wetlands, and enlarged the three existing ponds. Islands were created to improve habitat for pheasant and other game birds, and water from an on-site spring was once again directed into the wetlands.

"It has turned out better than I could have hoped," said Parks. Almost immediately, the land began transforming "from swamp and yuck to wetlands." That spring the herons returned to nest. "Schnaderbeck built it, and the birds came," he said. "Nature is taking its course."

Since 2010 teal hunting has improved by 30-40 percent, said Parks. Birds feed on blue gill and other fish from the shallow ponds, and deer and elk frequent the property. "It's amazing to watch," said Parks. Like frames in time-lapsed photography, he said, each day is different.

Eliminating the stagnant ponds also greatly diminished the mosquito problem. The Campbells, whom Parks called "great neighbors," also work to mitigate the mosquito population through thoughtful irrigation techniques, said Parks.

A few years ago Parks negotiated for 12 acres of bottomland that is now a thriving wetland. "It was the best deal of my life," he said.

Parks said the land also benefited from an early river channel restoration project by the Paonia-based North Fork River Improvement Association, now the Western Colorado Conservation Center. It returned the river bed to its natural flow pattern, eliminated mosquito habitat, and helped prevent erosion of the river bank.

While they stand out, great blue herons aren't the only protected species to frequent the site. Petry, who owns Western Biology, LLC, in Hotchkiss, is permitted by the USFWS to survey for federally endangered species and has completed informal surveys of the property. He said he has detected some very rare birds on that property, including the yellow-billed cuckoo.

Private restoration projects by Parks' neighbors have created "another pearl on a string of pearls" that is taking shape along the valley floor, slowly returning the area to what he remembers from his youth, said Parks. Last winter a flock of sandhill cranes made a quick stopover on his neighbor's property on their migration. One of Parks' neighbors, the late Greg Owings, harvested a waterfowl banded in southwest Colorado last year, said Parks.

It all adds up. Petry said that a couple more great blue heron rookeries have appeared near Delta in the last couple of years.

In 2013 Kevin and Jackie Parks secured the land for future generations by placing 42 acres of wetlands and riparian forest under a conservation easement with the Black Canyon Regional Land Trust (BCRLT). The trust oversees management of roughly 53,500 acres and 340 easements over a six-county area of western Colorado. Of that land, almost 1,000 acres is wetlands.

Jeremy Puckett is stewardship director for the BCRLT. With a wetland riparian forest, the river and all of its features, he calls the Parks' land "a sweet location." To add to its unique character, the Parks homestead was honored in 2013 as a "Colorado Centennial Farm" by History Colorado. The original Parks family home, built a few hundred yards from the wetlands in 1906, now houses the North Fork Historical Museum in Paonia.

Under the easement agreement the Parks family continues to improve the property. In March, Parks burned almost a decade's worth of overgrown wetlands vegetation, mimicking the natural cycle of growth, death and rebirth. New growth has already taken hold, said Petry, who is monitoring the area to see what takes shape post-burn.

Parks is also designing a shooting range using the existing landscape. Petry is monitoring breeding times of the herons and other migratory birds to ensure the range isn't used during critical breeding and nesting times.

For now, a major goal is to continue with tamarisk and Russian olive eradication projects, said Parks. He also recently planted grass seeds along the river that were provided by the Natural Resources Conservation Service to help control erosion.

Parks said he hopes that one day daughter Halley will take over care of the land. Maintaining it under the easement agreement and fulfilling his vision for the future is a year-to-year process based on what they can afford, he said. In addition to the burn, this year they will drain the wetlands to its lowest level for the first time. At some point the wetlands will require a makeover, a project the family will fund and complete under a federally directed program.

For that, said Parks, he hopes to leave money in his will.

Editor's note: This article has been edited to correct an error. The original version identified one bird species as the southwestern willow flycatcher, an endangered species and not found in our area. The correct species is willow flycatcher, which is not endangered. Also, a clarification from Adam Petry that he provided data about nesting phenologies (cycles) and is not actually monitoring the shooting range. Parks is paying special attention to the herons and other migratory birds, ensuring the use of the shooting range would be outside the migratory bird nesting season.

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