Colorado mines lead the way in environmental protection. Why is Obama trying to shut them down?

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Reclaimed coal mine land proves inviting to grouse, other wildlife

A Columbian sharp-tailed grouse was photographed on reclaimed land that was surface-mined for coal at the Trapper Mine. Photo courtesy of Trapper Mine/Andrew Spencer

CRAIG — There’s no denying the drastic disturbance caused by surface coal mining, from scraping off the surface, to excavating and blasting to get to layers of coal lying sometimes hundreds of feet below.

But when the mining is over and the land is put back together, it actually can be an inviting place for many animals, from iconic species such as pronghorn and elk to less familiar ones such as the Columbian sharp-tailed grouse and the grasshopper sparrow.

That’s something folks at the Trapper Mine near Craig will tell visitors. And experts at Colorado Parks and Wildlife will back them up, particularly when it comes to efforts involving the grouse.

“Their mine-land reclamation is excellent. It’s everything sharp-taileds need in (plant) species diversity and height and cover,” Tony Apa, a wildlife avian research biologist, said of Trapper’s work.

That work led to be it being recognized in 2002 by the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement as one of the top three examples nationally for mined-land reclamation in the modern history of coal mining.

Forrest Luke, the mine’s environmental manager, said during a recent tour of the mine that when visitors see reclaimed land there, “sometimes they’re pretty skeptical that that was all disturbed.”

More than 4,500 acres have been reclaimed at the mine to date. Part of the work involves grading and restoring the land to its approximate original condition and then laying topsoil.

“Here at Trapper we mine on steep slopes, so a lot of work goes into re-establishing drainages that are hydrologically stable,” Luke said.

Erosion control measures such as check dams are installed to dissipate the energy of flowing water and trap
sediment, and reseeding of 
native vegetation is accomplished both by airplane and on the ground.

Luke said installation of stock ponds has benefited wildlife, as has planting of islands of shrubs in areas that before mining had become overgrown with dense, mature mountain brush. That breaks up and diversifies the vegetation that provides food and cover for animals.

Everything from ermine to badgers to rattlesnakes populates the reclaimed land. Luke said the mine was home to one of the first documented nestings of the rare grasshopper sparrow on Colorado’s Western Slope.

Pronghorn were nonexistent before mining began, and now number several hundred.

“They really like our reclaimed land,” Luke said.

Brian Holmes, a conservation biologist with Parks and Wildlife, said the reclaimed land is more grass-based in its early stages of regrowth, which is attractive to pronghorn.

That habitat also has proven highly attractive to elk, almost to the point that it can create a challenge for further regrowth, he said.

“In sufficient numbers they can consume a lot of plant material,” he explained.

Arguably the biggest reclamation success story for the mine from a wildlife perspective has been the Columbian sharp-tailed grouse.

Apa long has studied the bird, doing his doctoral degree work on it. He said it occurs basically from Colorado to British Columbia, but has lost about 90 percent of its range. It’s been petitioned twice for listing for protection under the Endangered Species Act, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has found a listing to be not warranted thanks to successful mined-land reclamation programs and a conservation reserve program making use of former agricultural land.

Luke said Trapper started monitoring the grouse’s leks — the mating grounds where males strut and dance to woo females — in 1998, and the numbers of leks and strutting birds have been increasing since then.

“So they really are flourishing,” he said.

Reclamation efforts at other area mines including the Colowyo Mine between Craig and Meeker and one owned by Peabody Energy east of Trapper also have benefited the bird. Luke said reclaimed mine land makes up 1 percent of the land in northwest Colorado but is home to 18 percent of the grouse’s leks in the region.

He said survival rates for the birds at Trapper are more than double what they are for nearby native habitat, according to one study. The mine is being looked to as the standard for the kind of conditions that are desirable in conservation reserve program lands to help the bird, Luke said.

Said Apa, “Pretty simply, we are evaluating the population response of Columbian sharp-tailed grouse to habitat improvements. Trapper is basically our example site.

“… In our experimental design, Trapper Mine is what we’re going to try to create in conservation reserve programs on private land. What we’re trying to achieve is what Trapper Mine has.”

Colorado Parks and Wildlife is replicating Trapper’s approach on private land in Routt and Moffat counties to evaluate how the bird fares.

Apa said reclaimed Trapper Mine land has numerous grasses and forbs that provide food for the grouse, while also providing habitat for grasshoppers and other insects on which young sharp-taileds rely for food.

Holmes said Colowyo likewise is working to promote revegetation diversity, through steps such as experimenting with different topsoil depths. Soil typically is deeper in drainages than ridgetops, for example, and different plants do best at different topsoil depths.

Apa said that ironically, some current sharp-tailed dancing grounds at Trapper are at almost the exact same places where a researcher had found them in the 1960s, while the coal was still in the ground.

“It boggles my mind that they actually have re-established areas where they were pre-mining,” he said.

Similar behavior has been reported in the case of the Gunnison sage-grouse in the Gunnison Basin. Erik Molvar, a biologist with the conservation group WildEarth Guardians, has said males returned to the ice atop a former lek site flooded by Blue Mesa Reservoir for three years after the reservoir filled.

One reason for the Columbian sharp-tailed’s success at Trapper Mine is its willingness to take advantage of grasslands. Apa said the greater sage-grouse, by comparison, is more reliant on sagebrush, which is harder to re-establish on reclaimed lands. So it has been more challenging to get greater sage-grouse to return to the Trapper Mine area.

Still, the mine continues to work toward establishing more sagebrush and other types of brush. Holmes said deer, which currently have generally stable numbers at the mine, likewise should respond well as the reclaimed vegetation matures and more trees and brush grow.

Apa said that in some cases, birds can be more productive and successful on reclaimed mine land than native habitat. But as to whether it’s better to have reclaimed land that’s highly beneficial to wildlife, or land that’s left undisturbed to begin with, is more a values judgment that both Apa and Holmes believe is up to society rather than them to make.

They recognize the role that coal plays in the region’s economy and providing a significant energy source. Where that occurs through strip mining, the question for them is whether it can be done in a way that wildlife eventually can benefit once the land is restored, and they believe area mines deserve credit for their work in making that happen.

“It’s great to think they create a giant hole in the earth, and they put it back and it’s a well-functioning system” for wildlife, said Holmes, who called such results “pretty amazing.”