Colorado Natural Heritage Program Earns National Award for Workon Imperiled Plant, Animal Species Throughout State

A program based at Colorado State University that collects and distributes information on rare and imperiled plants, animals and natural communities in Colorado has won a national award from the Nature Conservancy.

The Colorado Natural Heritage Program was named Outstanding Heritage Program, an honor given annually to only one of the 65 U.S. member programs of the Natural Heritage network. The Nature Conservancy also issued an award to the Panama Conservation Data Center in Central America.

The award recognizes the program’s exceptional efforts to advance the mission of the Nature Conservancy, which works in partnership with an international network of centers that identifies areas with sensitive plant, animal or ecosystems that warrant protection through land conservation or other means.

The Colorado Natural Heritage Program is a cooperative effort with the Nature Conservancy, Colorado State, the Colorado Division of Wildlife and Great Outdoors Colorado. The program is housed at Colorado State under the auspices of the College of Natural Resources.

John Sawhill, president of the Nature Conservancy, said the award to the program is significant because the Colorado Natural Heritage Program was restarted only five years ago and has accomplished a great deal since.

"Four years ago, the state’s heritage program was practically non-existent. Since then, through the enthusiasm, dedication and hard work, the program has grown from a staff of two to more than 30. It has emerged as one of the nation’s premier heritage programs," he said.

Colorado Natural Heritage Program scientists have identified more than 10,000 locations in Colorado that represent an estimated 1,000 endangered or imperiled plant, animal or natural communities. These areas are plotted onto maps and entered into an extensive database so developers and county planners can consider how construction projects may affect a rare plant or animal species.

"Our work is vital in keeping Colorado ahead of the endangered species curve," said Katie Pague, senior information manager for CHNP. "By knowing where these sensitive plants, animals and ecosystems are located, we can help land managers and land owners prevent these species from becoming endangered or extinct."

The program’s work has helped counties preserve sensitive areas through the development of open space parks and natural reserves, Pague said. For example, Jefferson County has protected portions of at least 15 of the 27 sensitive areas identified by the Colorado Natural Heritage Program by converting these areas to open space, thus encouraging development toward less sensitive areas.

In addition, the program also has helped identify subspecies of plants and animals that exist in Colorado and nowhere else in the world. An example on the western slope is the Parachute penstemon, a rare plant with only two known populations in the world, both in Garfield County. Because of the program’s discovery of a new population of the globally endangered mountain plover in Park County, the world’s population of this bird grew by as much as 20 percent.

The program also tracks the progression of other rare or endangered species, including the kit fox in northeastern Colorado, the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse in Jefferson, Douglas and El Paso counties, and the Ottoe skipper, a rare butterfly that lives in the tallgrass prairies near Boulder.

The Colorado Natural Heritage Program is a public/private non-profit organization funded entirely by private contributions, project grants and contracts. Much of the field work is done by student volunteers at Colorado State. For more information about the program, call Katie Pague at (970) 491-1309.