Protecting natural wet meadows in San Luis Valley
Ducks Unlimited (DU) is able to protect a string of natural wet meadows in Colorado thanks to the generosity of Mike and Cathy McNeil. The McNeils recently donated a 230-acre conservation easement to DU on their ranch in the Rock Creek Corridor of the San Luis Valley.
The entire 3,033-acre ranch encompasses a lower reach of Rock Creek and its riparian zone. DU acquired a 520-acre conservation easement on the McNeil Ranch in 2003 with a bargain sale purchase made possible by an earlier GOCO grant.
The McNeil ranch contains meadows that flood in the spring when migrating waterfowl most need the habitat. Having been in the McNeil Family for over 100 years and six generations, the ranch is a registered State of Colorado “Centennial Ranch.” Its exceptional wet meadows, pastures and uplands are irrigated by extremely senior water from the Rio Grande. The McNeil Ranch also adjoins public lands including the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, Bureau of Land Management, and Colorado state land.
The ranch is one of few San Luis Valley drainages remaining in ranching and not subdivided for residential development, making it even more vital for protection. Water that flows onto the National Wildlife Refuge is entirely comprised of return flows from irrigation within the watershed. Therefore, losing this water would be a significant threat to the excellent habitat conditions currently made possible from the overland surface flows of Rock Creek and Rio Grande water. Long-term surveys show that the refuge sustains some of the highest duck nesting densities in the world and that nesting and migratory habitat would diminish if this upstream property and its vital water resources were not protected.
Over 100 species of birds inhabit or migrate through the Rock Creek area and McNeil Ranch, including numerous species of birds of prey, waterfowl and waterbirds including Sandhill cranes, songbirds and others. From the riparian area through the abundant food supply of the hay fields to the extensive wetlands, the area provides extensive bird habitat. Ninety-five percent of the entire population of the Rocky Mountain Greater Sandhill Crane, about 18,000 cranes, spends nearly four months feeding and resting in the San Luis Valley during their bi-annual migrations to and from the breeding grounds in Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. Sixty to seventy percent of the Sandhill Cranes roost on the nearby Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge.
The wildlife that use this area include waterfowl species such as Canada Goose, Mallard, Northern Pintail, Redhead, Canvasback, Cinnamon Teal, Green-winged Teal, Ring-necked Duck, and American Wigeon.