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Two thousand people live in Dolores County, Colorado, a population in decline since the recession. As with much of the west, Dolores County’s history lies in extraction- logging, ore, agriculture in the arid southwest corner of an arid state, where an average year yields fourteen inches of precipitation. A third of the county’s jobs are in agriculture, with most of the rest in “regional services”- local government, schools, utilities and the rest. One percent of the folks in Dolores County, Colorado are employed in the tourism sector. Protecting their namesake river- home to Colorado River fishes found nowhere else on the planet- may improve that sector, adding diversity to the local economy.
Montezuma County, just to the south, has ten times the population in the same arid corner of southwest Colorado. Historically, Montezume county developed by supplying hardrock mines of the Animas River with the supplies that helped turn that river toxic orange a couple years back. Modern Montezuma county is driven by commuters to and from nearby Durango, by retirees, and by tourism- 15% of the local economy. Montezuma county officials are suspicious of efforts to protect the Dolores River.
Montezuma County fears any federal involvement could affect water management. More water for fish and wildlife, less for hay. Restrictions on development of pipelines to carry oil and gas across the country. But it’s mostly the potential reallocation of water they say native fish don’t need. They worry designation is a federal plot to benefit downstream users without irony- without understanding they’re downstream users.
Over the past decade the US Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal agencies have worked to partner with local governments to protect vulnerable species before they become candidates for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Those efforts hinge on local governments’ willingness to compromise, to find solutions which allow for responsible development and protection of valuable habitat. Without that ability to compromise, local managers tie the hands of federal agencies, precipitating the outcomes those local managers worry about. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
We’ll see what happens on the Dolores.
Biologists and conservationists constantly struggle with relating their data to a general audience. The folks at Long Live the Kings, have gamified real-time fish tracking data on the steelhead running through Puget Sound, whose populations have declined dramatically over the past several decades. Users “bet” on which fish will reach its spawning stream first, with proceeds going to benefit the nonprofit, which has spent the past three decades restoring native trout and salmon to the Pacific coast. Sign up individually or create a team by May 6th to get in on the action.
…so what is it you do, exactly? Colorado State’s Kurt Fausch tackles the question in his book For the Love of Rivers. In Fausch’s case, how aquatic communities of fish and invertebrates are structured, how they are linked to terrestrial ecosystems, and how humans alter those linkages. It’s thoughtful, and messy- if scientists knew how to answer these questions they’d already be answered- and sometimes the solutions seem absurd, like fixing plastic greenhouses over creeks to understand the importance of streamside insects to native trout. But understanding how these systems work helps us fix them when they break. Fixing them when they break ensures our children have the same opportunities our parents provided us. Fausch’s book is a must-read for those interested in field biology generally, for those interested in field biology as a career, and perhaps most importantly- as a primer in how to engage and interest the public in field research that contributes to the health of their environment.