TRINIDAD — For much of the summer, Casey Cooley, Forest Habitat Coordinator for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, watched as six large excavators equipped with huge grinders at the ends of their hinged booms methodically attacked the dense forests of the Spanish Peaks State Wildlife Area (SWA).
Cooley and Mike Smith, CPW Wildlife Technician for the 7,000-acre SWA, orchestrated the attacks knowing that each time the excavators pulverized a large pine tree into a pile of slash, the overall health of the forest improved.
Even better, the thinned forest will benefit the resident deer, elk, mountain lion, bear and other wildlife, including a large wild turkey population at the wildlife area 25 miles northwest of Trinidad.
Cooley and Smith say the newly treated 370 acres of forest will offer more room for wildlife to roam, to bed down and more food because grasses and shrubs will grow more easily thanks to enhanced sunlight reaching the forest floor.
“The goal of the project was to open up the canopy to create more stand-structure diversity and to allow more grasses and shrubs to grow,” Cooley said. “The benefit of having a forest that is less dense is there’s more understory growth. That benefits wildlife and increases wildlife use. Another benefit is to improve forest health and reduce wildfire severity.”
Over the past 10 years, CPW has similarly treated about 1,200 acres at the Spanish Peaks SWA in a cooperative effort with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF), the local Sangre de Cristo Habitat Protection Program committee, the CPW Habitat Protection Program State Council, and the National Wild Turkey Foundation.
Cooley cautioned that visitors to the Spanish Peaks SWA might find it a jarring sight given how the large, spinning teeth of the excavators chewed up branches and spit out big splinters of wood. He described it as nothing more than “a bad haircut” that will soon grow back and look even better.
“The areas we treated have been aggressively thinned to open up that forest canopy,” he said. “In 3 to 5 years, you’ll see a forest that has a lot more grasses and shrubs in the understory.”
But big game animals should benefit almost immediately. Before the excavators moved in, it was hard to see the mixed conifer and ponderosa pine forest due to all the trees. Now, large patches of blue sky are visible when standing deep in the forest. And it’s suddenly possible to see people and animals moving through the forest depths.
“One of my primary responsibilities is improving habitat for wildlife,” Smith said. “We have a thriving population of Merriam’s wild turkeys and the newly-thinned forest should boost this population.”
And when a wildfire burns through the SWA, the thinned forest should slow it down by significantly reducing the chance of crown fires travelling through the tops of the trees.
“It will be easier to fight a wildfire in the treated forest and reduce the severity of any fire,” Smith said. “And this type of proactive forest management is a bargain compared to the cost of trying to respond and restore a SWA after a large wildfire.”
The total project cost of $120,000 was shared by CPW and RMEF.
Each year, CPW treats an average of 575 acres throughout the State Wildlife Areas.
“This project is a prime example of boots on the ground habitat management that we do at CPW,” Cooley said. “These projects are extremely rewarding to us when we see the wildlife respond. And it’s personally rewarding because we’re taking care of the forest for future generations.”