West Slope Agriculture Benefits Fish and Wildlife, Too

August 08, 2014

What does agriculture have to do with trout and fishing? As a Trout Unlimited staffer, I get that question a lot from people when I tell them about working with farmers and ranchers on conservation.

It might not be immediately apparent, but farms and fish do go together. Let me explain.

Those of us here on the Western Slope who don’t regularly care for animals, fix fence and irrigate pasture should take a moment to consider the benefits that farming and ranching provide to our communities and way of life. Some benefits are well known, others are more subtle, but together, they contribute to the historic, cultural, economic and in many cases the environmental foundation of the place we all call home, western Colorado.

Through our many years of partnerships with agriculture, Trout Unlimited has learned how important farmers and ranchers are in providing benefits such as: open space, wildlife habitat, economic stability, as well as improving the health of rivers and streams.

Most people understand that West Slope agriculture provides a stable economic base to our rural areas and local communities. Each year the 10,000 or so farms and ranches in western Colorado generate well over a billion dollars in direct sales and ancillary benefits. From providing local jobs to buying fuel, feed and supplies, agricultural producers provide a consistent economic base to our rural towns.

What many Coloradans don’t fully appreciate is how the farms and ranches that cover our rivers valleys and create the graceful Western landscapes that we love, also provide important wildlife habitat and open space. Elk and deer rely on these spaces for migration and wintering areas. Ducks and geese use the isolated wetland areas for nesting, feeding and cover. Trout and other fish rely on the healthy rivers and streams that flow through these protected areas. All of these species rely on these open spaces for at least a part of their life cycles. Western Colorado agriculture diverts water from our rivers and streams to sustain all of these benefits.

Trout Unlimited recognizes the importance of good water management and works together with farmers and ranchers to make West Slope agricultural water use more sustainable and successful so that producers in turn can continue to provide food, economic stability, open space, wildlife habitat and healthy rivers and streams. For example, TU recently partnered with an upper Gunnison River basin ranch and the local water conservancy district to improve on-ranch water diversion structures and install new sluice gates. This summer the improved structures have improved control of water diverted from the stream and enabled ranch irrigators to more efficiently flood irrigate their meadows. The sluice gates allow trout which have inadvertently entered the ditch system to return to the stream. Simple improvements that yield big returns for ranchers, our streams and trout.

So, as you watch the farms and ranches of the West Slope change with the seasons, think about how interconnected agriculture is with the quality of our daily lives, including the quality of our outdoor recreation, fishing and hunting opportunities.

And take every opportunity to thank and support the people who care for the animals, fix the fences and irrigate the crops and pastures.  Their stewardship of land and water is critical to keeping our state’s rivers and wildlife healthy.


Richard  Van Gytenbeek is Our Colorado River coordinator for Trout Unlimited. He lives in Grand Junction.


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