Before Western settlers reached Colorado, the best estimates show there were probably around 2 million acres of wetlands across the state, which provide some of the most biologically diverse habitats and serve as a natural filter for water.
Although wetlands account for only a small portion of the landscape, it is estimated that 75 percent of all wildlife in the state depend on the thriving ecosystems, according to the Colorado Wetland Information Center.
However, because of development and other human impacts, researchers say that number has been effectively cut in half.
In recent years, wetland scientists and conservationists have undertaken the task of restoring and creating wetlands where possible, in the hopes of bringing back the instrumental ecosystems.
Earlier this month, the Southwest Basin Roundtable and the Colorado Water Conservation Board awarded $50,000 and $170,000, respectively, to fund efforts to restore an estimated 100 acres of wetlands near Navajo Lake.
“The project will greatly enhance waterfowl and hundreds of other wetland species,” said Tom Brossia, former state chairman for Ducks Unlimited. “It will provide both watchable wildlife and hunting opportunity.”
When Navajo Dam was built in the 1960s to provide water and flood control for the growing town of Farmington and surrounding communities, more than 15,600 acres across the Colorado-New Mexico state line were inundated.
On the Colorado side, in the southwestern corner of Archuleta County, several agencies, including the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and Colorado Parks and Wildlife, restored about 80 acres of wetland.
The area is called the Sambrito Wetlands Complex, which has public access, a few hiking trails and a parking lot at the end of County Road 988, a dirt road off Highway 151, just outside of the unincorporated community of Allison.
Around 2012, those interested in expanding the complex, through the Southwest Wetland Focus Area Committee, started planning a project that would add another 100 acres of wetlands.
But that effort was abruptly derailed when the New Mexico jumping mouse was listed as an endangered species in 2014. Because Sambrito is considered critical habitat for the mouse, plans to alter the landscape must not adversely affect the species.
In the interim, the infrastructure around the wetlands, as well as ditches and embankments, fell into disrepair, said Catherine Ortega, a wildlife biologist and ornithologist who used to teach at Fort Lewis College.
But in recent months, the project regained steam, and with the formal announcement of the grants totaling $220,000, plans to restore the wetland are set to begin either in fall 2018 or early next year.
Now, not only will the project be a benefit to the jumping mouse, it will also provide more habitat for the diverse range of wildlife that depend on the ecosystem, as well as other imperiled species, such as the southwestern willow flycatcher and the yellow-billed cuckoo.
Brossia said there’s an estimated 980 species that can be found in Sambrito.
“It’s a good bird watching spot as (water fowl) bulk up on their way north,” he said.
The land is owned by the Bureau of Reclamation and managed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The leading group on the restoration project is Ducks Unlimited, which has restored 14 million acres of wetlands across North America.
The restoration is also expected to filter water before it reaches Navajo Lake. The water that feeds into Sambrito is mostly from surrounding irrigation, said Ethan Scott, a land and recreation manager for the Bureau of Reclamation.
Ortega said the group hopes to secure an additional $180,000 to fully complete the project.