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Eagle Ranch building a success

PAM BOYD
eagle county correspondent

EAGLE ” Every time a house is built in Eagle Ranch, local wildlife feels another small pinch.

But because of a special program tied to the development’s sales, they also get some financial consideration.

Back in 1998 when Eagle Ranch was approved by the town, a special mitigation fund was established to address the long-term effects of development on wildlife. Eagle Ranch Metro District imposes a 1 percent real estate transfer tax on sales. That money is divided three ways with 60 percent going to development maintenance and projects, 20 percent going to an affordable housing program and 20 percent going to the wildlife mitigation program.

The wildlife fund is administered by a committee including representatives from Eagle Ranch, the town of Eagle and the Colorado Division of Wildlife. To date, the fund has financed a stream enhancement project that earned praise from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In the months ahead, the committee hopes to expand the scope of that work as well as undertake a winter range program designed to enhance deer habitat.

The Brush Creek stream enhancement project addresses the effects of more than 100 years of agriculture uses on the property. Begun in 2004, the work was completed in 2006.

“The cattle had really abused the creek banks,” notes Kent Rose, Eagle Ranch construction manager. The rehabilitation effort targeted areas where the creek banks had been badly eroded, sometimes leaving dirt walls three or four feet tall. That problem was compounded each spring when eroding sediment choked the stream.

Today, Brush Creek as it runs through Eagle Ranch looks natural. Steep dirt banks have been replaced with gradually sloping creek sides lined with mid-sized boulders that keep the banks stabilized.

It’s natural appearance is one of the big success stories of the project. “The Corps of Engineers is so excited about it they even think it could be a model,” says Rose. “The fish habitat has been vastly improved.”

It cost approximately $170,000 to correct a century’s worth of agricultural damage to the creek. According to Bill Heicher, open space coordinator for the town of Eagle, the mitigation fund picked up approximately $100,000 of that price tag with the Division of Wildlife’s Fishing is Fun program contributing a $60,000 grant. The remaining money came from Eagle Ranch and in-kind donations.

“It’s very natural looking,” says Heicher of the work. “After a growing season, you can hardly tell anybody’s been out there. The Corps of Engineers is very impressed.”

So are the fish, and by association, the fishermen of Brush Creek.

David Hakes, who resides at Eagle Ranch, is an avid fisherman. “It’s (the fishing along Brush Creek in Eagle Ranch) improved to the point its crowded, especially on the weekends.”

Hakes casts an educated eye at the Brush Creek improvements. He used to fish a section of river in California where cattle grazing had beat the banks down and erosion was getting to be a problem. “They’ve (the mitigation fund) beefed up the banks there with rocks and trees. It really is a good thing.”

The wildlife mitigation fund committee hopes to build on the success of the Brush Creek project by moving upstream. In the coming months members will be talking with property owners up the creek to determine if the improvements can be extended.

But waterways aren’t the only fund focus. Members want to give deer and elk a boost as well.

This summer, the committee hopes to launch a large scale winter deer range improvement plan. “It’s going to be a big project. We are talking about 1,000 acres,” says Heicher.

According to Heicher, who is a retired Colorado Division of Wildlife conservation officer, deer population numbers in the Eagle Valley have plummeted over the past 40 to 50 years. The reason is development and human pressures.

The sagebrush areas that provide critical range for deer are rapidly diminishing, partly because of construction and partly because of range management practices

“”Those areas used to burn and manage themselves,” Heicher explains. But with more people in the valley, wildfire control is more aggressive. As a result, juniper and pinion invade sagebrush stands; and deer range shrinks.

The fund’s range program is centered around town of Eagle open space and Bureau of Land Management lands adjacent to Eagle Ranch. The program will involve going into what Heicher describes as “old and decadent” sagebrush stands. In these areas, the sage dates back as far as 80 years and juniper and pinion are interloping. The problem, as far as deer grazing is concerned, is the sage, pinion and juniper push out the low growing plants by sucking up all the water and shading.

The plan is to take an approximately 1,000 acre area and remove a large portion of the interloping plants as well as the older sagebrush. “There will be some areas that will look like we ran a lawnmower over it,” explains Craig Wescoatt, DOW wildlife conservation officer. “Hopefully in the long run you will see a fairly drastic improvement and a fairly early recovery.”

The Eagle Valley Chapter of the Mule Deer Foundation is also participating in the project.

While wildlife officials, Eagle Ranch and the town are all in agreement that this range improvements will aid deer habitat, the proposal was still subject to scrutiny. The BLM required a comprehensive environmental impact report – which included an archaeological survey and a sensitive plants study – for the project. Those processes are nearing completion. Wescoatt said the shrub removal may begin as early as this spring. Additionally, fertilization of the project area is planned this fall.

“Whatever we do for the deer, the elk will benefit from,” Heicher says.

In the long run, he notes, it is better for elk to winter in the hills rather than in the Brush Creek Valley like they did this year. “It’s not good for the elk to winter at the dog park. It puts them under stress and when they are under stress, they have fewer calves and fewer healthy calves,” he explains. “If you make the food supply better for the elk, hopefully they will stay up on the public lands more.”

As more and more homes are built throughout the valley, Wescoatt said the Eagle Ranch mitigation fund provides the best working program he’s seen for people concerned about wildlife viability. He notes the fund committee has built cash reserves to the point where interest funds improvements. “Hopefully, there will be money in that fund for perpetuity to address wildlife issues,” he says. “Really, for me, this is a poster child for mitigating some of these subdivisions.”

Heicher agrees. He notes that the Eagle Ranch approval mandates that .2 percent of the real estate transfer fee goes to wildlife and that cash can’t be reallocated to parks or streets or other projects. Because of that guarantee, wildlife in the Brush Creek Valley may actually get a bit of a reprieve. “People can look at the Eagle Valley over the past 50 years and there’s been a 50 to 60 percent reduction in mule deer. Those animals are gone and they aren’t coming back because their habitat has been destroyed,” Heicher says. “The whole idea of the Wildlife Impact Fund is to help the wildlife impacted by development. This program stands a chance of actually mitigating impacts forever.”


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