Partners Improve Habitat in Colorado’s White River Valley

Successful partnerships have given hunters in the Meeker area more to smile about in the last few decades.
District Wildlife Manager Bailey Franklin checks the progress of mechanical mountain shrub mulching treatments on the northeast side of Oak Ridge State Wildlife Area (SWA) from an ATV.
District Wildlife Manager Bailey Franklin checks the progress of mechanical mountain shrub mulching treatments on the northeast side of Oak Ridge State Wildlife Area (SWA).

By Danielle Johnston

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Successful partnerships have given hunters in the Meeker area more to smile about in the last few decades. The White River Habitat Partnership Program (WRHPP) was founded in 1993 to work cooperatively with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to sustainably manage the size of the White River elk herd with game damage conflicts with private landowners. To accomplish that mission, a proactive, landscape-scale habitat improvement and monitoring system was used to both improve elk and mule deer habitat and increase huntability.

The White River Habitat Partnership Program uses revenue from big game license sales to reduce conflicts between wildlife and agriculture and help meet CPW’s big game management objectives. Projects take vast amounts of time, money, equipment, labor and data collection that would not be possible without partnerships between public and private stakeholders.  

To increase the impact of each project, habitat improvement techniques are tailored to the needs of each particular landscape. In areas where conifers crowd out palatable understory forage, the projects involve thinning out trees. In areas where invasive species dominate, management techniques utilize herbicide applications followed by the seeding of desirable plant species. Prescribed burns are used in certain areas to both reduce fuels that can lead to catastrophic fires, and stimulate new plant growth that elk and deer thrive on. 

prescribed burning operation
A prescribed burning operation was conducted by a federal fire crew on the west end of Oak Ridge State Wildlife Area (SWA).

The WRHPP currently has one administrative assistant and seven committee members: three representing local livestock growers, one representing U.S. Forest Service, one representing Bureau of Land Management, one representing Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and one representing sportspersons.

Partnerships have been vital to the success of WRHPP’s habitat improvement projects, and in 2009, private consulting group Ranch Advisory Partners was hired to monitor and evaluate the long-term treatment techniques and their effectiveness. Todd Graham with Ranch Advisory Partners said “Our long-term data sets allow us to help WRHPP improve methods over time. We can compare different habitat treatment strategies and provide critical feedback to the program.”

On Oak Ridge State Wildlife Area, tree and brush thinning projects have turned impenetrable thickets of older shrubs into productive understories with mosaics of younger shrubs elk and deer find more palatable. Cory Bullen, Oak Ridge SWA’s property technician, often recommends these habitat treatment areas to struggling hunters, and he recently had success there while elk hunting with a friend. 

Hydro axe
Hydro axe, owned by T M Contracting, at work creating a preferred mosaic pattern within a mature mountain shrub community

“It was the last day of the last rifle season, and we hiked in a couple of miles to a spot just upslope of the habitat treatment in Banner Basin,” Bullen said. “They’re about 40 or 50 deer on the left side of the treatment, and a few bucks were fighting. We hung out and watched the deer until about 10 minutes before we lost the shooting light. As we turned to leave, we saw our elk; a group of six cows came in from the right. My friend had a bull tag, and I wanted to find one for him, but with so little light left he urged me to go ahead. I got a good shot and brought down a very large cow. There was deer and elk sign everywhere.” 

helicopter spraying shrubs
Aerial herbicide application by helicopter in mountain shrub community on Oak Ridge State Wildlife Area.

According to another hunter that knows the area, “Oak Ridge is one of those spots that is always on my short list of hunting locations. The habitat there just holds elk, due in part to the habitat work CPW has performed.” 

Habitat improvements through WRHPP are not limited to public land and many private landowners have worked cooperatively with CPW and WRHPP to improve mule deer and elk habitat on their lands. These efforts serve both the needs of wildlife by providing high-quality forage in close proximity to hiding cover, and the needs of hunters by allowing easier access and creating holding areas for big game, providing better hunting opportunities. 

Overall, CPW and WRHPP have treated about 27,000 acres, or about 1.2% of the White River landscape, split roughly equally between private and public lands. 

CPW District Wildlife Manager Bailey Franklin
CPW District Wildlife Manager Bailey Franklin

Bailey Franklin, CPW’s district wildlife manager in Meeker, has worked tirelessly to support WRHPP projects in the area. “The landscape-scale habitat improvement program in the WRHPP area has been a tremendous success for both wildlife and sportspersons due to support and collaboration between private landowners, federal land management agencies, nonprofit conservation organizations and CPW,” Bailey said. 

The White River Habitat Partnership Program is one of 19 Habitat Partnership Program Committees that do similar work throughout the state of Colorado. These committees work together to brainstorm and select the best projects to improve wildlife habitat in their area using big game license sales and HPP grant funds. The success of WRHPP and similar committees would not be possible without relationships and partnerships between public and private stakeholders. 

To learn more about the Habitat Partnership Program and the amazing work they do, visit our website.

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Colorado Parks and Wildlife is celebrating its 125th Anniversary throughout 2022 to honor the legacy of our agency and the talented staff who make fulfilling CPW’s important mission possible. For more stories like this, please visit the Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s 125th Anniversary web page!


Written by Danielle Johnston. Danielle is a Habitat Researcher with for Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Avian Research Program.

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