River Trails assesses wildlife impacts
Extensive biological inventory comes up clean

A view of River Trails Ranch from County Road 250. A recent biological survey of the property stated that building 800 units on this parcel would not adversely impact threatened or endangered species./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

Early this year, Wolff and Wessman forwarded a plan for 800 homes on the 245 acres formerly known as the Kroeger Ranch. Seizing on the New Urbanism approach, the plan calls for a variety of housing types immediately north of Durango and off County Road 250. The development plan also contains space for businesses, schools, parks and open space in the Animas River floodplain. Currently, Wolff and Wessman are seeking city approval to bring the ranch within city limits. The City Council is set to begin consideration of that request on Sept. 2.

No smoking gun

Presently and in prior incarnations, like the 67 units approved for the parcel by La Plata County last year, River Trails Ranch has drawn a great deal of criticism. One consistent charge against development of the acreage has been that it would destroy pristine wildlife habitat and reek environmental havoc on one of Durango’s key attributes – the Animas Valley. Wolff and Wessman said they wanted to answer this charge, and consequently went beyond city regulation and retained Ecosphere Environmental Services to conduct a biological assessment on the 245 acres.

“We invented this,” Wolff said. “The city didn’t ask us to do it, and it’s never been done for a city project before.”

The results of the draft assessment were filed with the city in mid-May. The general conclusion of the report is that River Trails Ranch would not adversely impact threatened or endangered species.

City Planner Greg Hoch said: “I’ve looked through the survey, and there’s no smoking gun here. They’ve taken a fairly broad look and concluded that there’s nothing that would violate federal wildlife regulations.”

In spite of the absence of a smoking gun, the report called for 51 recommended steps to mitigate impacts of the development. These range from maintaining migratory corridors for deer and elk and managing the quality of storm water to creating public transportation and requiring dark sky lighting.

“We’ll be following all of the guidelines,” Wolff said. “There are also places on the property where we’re going to enhance wetlands and one piece where we’re going to try to double the size of wetlands. We’ll also have standards that are approved by the Division of Wildlife for fencing and garbage. Vegetation will also be regulated.”

Herding elk

Mike Fitzgerald, president of Ecosphere, characterized the River Trails Ranch parcel as being only average in terms of quality habitat. In this way, he said the vacant land resembles the remainder of the Animas Valley, which has been generally denuded by grazing. However, he said that River Trails Ranch does contain some quality chunks of habitat along the Animas River and pieces along Spring Creek, which bisects the 245 acres.

“We’ve got some nice, small patches of habitat, but nothing expansive,” Fitzgerald said. “That can be said for most of the Animas Valley.”

With respect to the parcel’s elk herd, Ecosphere tried to take a historic look at the animals’ presence in the Animas Valley.

“We felt like it was important to give people a historic perspective of elk and their utilization of the valley,” Fitzgerald said. “We went back to the day when elk predominantly wintered on the south sides of areas like Animas Mountain and the Hermosa Cliffs.”

An oxbow in the Animas River floodplain south of
River Trails Ranch. The recent study argues that this kind of riparian area has the greatest wildlife
value./ Photo by Todd Newcomer.

Fitzgerald said that the existence of elk in the valley is a combination of the creation of easy grazing on agricultural land and a longstanding drought. “Because we’ve had four years of not much winter, there’s actually a resident herd of about 150 animals staying in the valley year round.”

Still, Fitzgerald said that there would be impacts by River Trails Ranch on the elk herd, specifically from the proposed extension of the Animas River Trail through the property’s floodplain. “We’ve certainly acknowledged that elk will be affected in the floodplain area, particularly if you extend a year round trail through it,” he said. “How many elk will be affected, we don’t know.”

The Southwestern Willow Flycatcher

Studies are still ongoing on one species, the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, a bird placed on the federal Endangered Species list in 1995. Several of the birds already have been documented in preliminary surveys. However, Fitzgerald said coming weeks will determine if there will be a problem.

“We’ve finished two out of five surveys,” he said. “We had some migrant birds in the second period, and that’s normal for the area. But if we spot birds after June 30, those will be the endangered ones.”

Should the endangered birds be encountered, Fitzgerald noted that the most detrimental part of the development proposal to the species would again be the trail in the floodplain. “I would say that with River Trails Ranch as it’s proposed, the big factor that could affect the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher is the trail. The river corridor is really the most critical area of the project to any species.”

The draft assessment verifies that the core of the development would not necessarily impact the birds. It even notes that historic practices of grazing are more detrimental to Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and several other species of bird than urban development.

It states, “ 85 the proposed River Trails Ranch development may overall negatively impact riparian bird populations in the Animas Valley, though some species may benefit from the conversion of pasturelands to urban landscapes.”

On-the-ground information

Attorney Dick Emmett is a member of the Friends of the Animas Valley, a group that has been outspoken in its opposition to the development of River Trails Ranch. Emmett also lives next to the parcel and disputes the claims that threatened and endangered species would not be affected by 800 new homes.

“I can’t say for certain that there are any willow flycatchers on the property, but I’d be glad to show them a picture of two to three eagles roosting in the cottonwoods on my property across the fence,” he said.

Emmett goes on to name the peregrine falcon as another endangered species that was not listed in the assessment but of which he has firsthand knowledge. “I know that peregrine falcons frequent the property from time to time, and there was no mention in the assessment,” he said.

Emmett eventually concluded: “Obviously, there’s going to be significant impacts on the winter range of wildlife. This assessment doesn’t really speak to that.”

However, Fitzgerald countered that the assessment speaks to the impacts in 51 different ways. He noted that not only have Wolff and Wessman offered to mitigate impacts, they have offered to go one further and improve existing habitat.

“I don’t recall the city ever doing a biological survey and certainly not to this level,” Fitzgerald said. “Even if you’re opposed to the project, you can agree that it’s a good thing that the developers did this. They could have easily just said it’s pasture and gone ahead and developed it.









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