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Bird oasis eyed by Colorado land managers for school funding

February 8, 2021 GMT

CHICO BASIN, Colo. (AP) — Sunlit yellow warblers, mountain plovers, golden eagles, burrowing owls and 342 other species, increasingly aced out of habitat, flock to a 135-square-mile patch of state-owned prairie that has become Colorado’s busiest oasis for wild bird survival.

But a state government agency would like to open up this Chico Basin prairie southeast of Colorado Springs to raise more revenue for schools. State Land Board officials have proposed selling the land, or subdividing it, along with expanded leasing for multiple uses — including public recreation and renewable energy development — to double their $300,000 annual take.

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Bird defenders have battled since 2019 to protect Chico Basin. Now the Audubon Society, Denver Field Ornithologists, Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, Nature Conservancy and others are pressing, ahead of a Feb. 10 vote by the five-member state board, to keep the prairie intact.

“If we really want conservation success in this state, we have to decide what success is going to look like. The best outcome would be to keep the Chico Basin as one big entity with conservation at the top of the management plan,” Nature Conservancy scientist Chris Pague said. “We’ve already lost a big number of bird species, and then with all the other things happening in the world — water redistribution, prairie dogs reduced, wind turbines, highway traffic, climate change….. Birds cannot just move. They require territory, home ranges and food.”

State Land Board officials declined requests for an interview but said in an email that “stewardship” won’t suffer.

Chico Basin sits 40 miles southeast of Colorado Springs, east of Interstate 25 and the now-contaminated Fountain Creek watershed, nourished by the Chico and Black Squirrel creeks. Its semi-arid slopes are studded with cholla cactus, and the land sustains prairie dogs, rattlers, foxes, coyotes and pronghorn. Chico Basin has emerged, like Barr Lake State Park northeast of Denver, as an ecologically essential island of biodiversity — a home or stopover for 346 bird species out of the 500 species documented in the state.

The parcel is among the largest in the 2.8 million-acre inventory controlled by the State Land Board, Colorado’s second-biggest landowner after the federal government. Leasing state land, which often is closed to the public, has raised $2 billion for schools since 2006, the agency’s mission, and state staffers point to construction of 524 buildings used by 225,000 students.

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Leasing to allow oil and gas drilling generates 80% of annual revenues ($119 million last year), an agency spokeswoman said. State officials now are offering new leases to energy companies for drilling on 13,000 acres of Las Animas County south of the Purgatoire River for extraction of helium.

When state officials in 2019 first initiated a change-up at Chico Basin, Colorado Springs Audubon Society conservation committee leader Linda Hodges alerted bird watchers statewide.

“Putting the land out to bid may increase their revenues, but at what risk?” Hodges says now. “Grasslands bird species are disappearing more rapidly than ever. … The fact that birds are vanishing means something is wrong, that our ecosystems are out of balance. Will this matter to anybody not interested in birds? Perhaps not. But it’s a sign that humans are wreaking havoc.”

Chico Basin Ranch is under a 25-year lease to rancher Duke Phillips and his Colorado-based company Ranchlands that expires in 2024. They have allowed access for about 250 visits a year by bird-watchers and scientists, and supported massive bird-banding projects in spring and fall that help track thousands of migrants. Phillips has promoted balancing grazing with restoration of habitat for wildlife. A leather-working enterprise gives options so that, during dry times, fewer cows graze to prevent erosion.

“We’re very interested in continuing,” Phillips, 65, said, noting his children grew up on the ranch and his grandchildren born there.

“But there needs to be one entity, with one management plan.,” he said. “There needs to be a balance between ecological management and economics.”

State officials have informed him of plans to use 1,500 acres in the Chico Basin for installation of solar panels to generate electricity, along with other potential new activities managed under separate leases.

Solar arrays typically entail killing the underlying short-grass prairie, Phillips said. For cattle, “at least you can graze around wind turbines, which can kill migrating birds in blades,” he said. Solar panels would reduce grazing and bird nesting habitat. And blue-tinted panels can attract and trap ducks and other birds who mistake them for water.

State land overseers want “a big change-up, because times have changed,” he said. “It feels like they’re really trying to maximize the financial side.”

But balancing nature’s needs with people is delicate, said Phillips, who also manages the Zapata Ranch adjacent to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve using bison.

“If you desecrate the eco-system, it will disrupt water cycles, energy cycles, the mineral cycles. It will distort natural processes,” he said. “And this will all come back to affect humans — the air we breathe, the water we drink, everything we need to live a healthy life.”

State Land Board spokeswoman Kristin Kemp said in an email that the agency has held public meetings over the past 18 months exploring options. State staffers likely will recommend that board members vote against subdividing Chico Basin for now, Kemp said. However, state officials remain committed to increased leasing, allowing for multiple uses, to collect at least $600,000 a year.

“The Land Board has determined that doing so will still maintain good stewardship of the land and natural values of the property,” Kemp said.

Bird Conservancy of the Rockies scientist Arvind Panjabi called expanded leasing “a nightmare scenario, because you would have different interest groups on the land, with conflicts of interests.”

The Bird Conservancy’s executive director Tammy VerCauteren pointed out that Colorado Parks and Wildlife, a different state agency, recently declared Chico Basin Ranch the state’s “partner of the year” for exemplary stewardship.

“This is one of the largest blocks of grassland habitat in our state under one owner and manager. Ideally, the management can stay under one lease to ensure a holistic approach to the land that accommodates the diverse habitat needs of grassland birds and other wildlife,” VerCauteren said.