A Habitat Restoration Project
Since 2002, the Quivira Coalition has partnered with numerous organizations and agencies to lead a habitat restoration project on Comanche Creek, a 27,000-acre watershed located in the Valle Vidal Unit of the Carson National Forest. The goal of this long-term project is to implement a restoration plan for the greater Comanche Creek Watershed that includes providing sustainable habitat for the threatened Río Grande cutthroat trout.
Heavy land use in the last century—logging, mining and overstocking with cattle and sheep—has led to the formation of large headcuts and channel downcutting in the upper tributaries that flow down into the Comanche Creek mainstem.
As the stream flow erodes the streambed and moves sediment, streams “downcut” as water moves too swiftly through the system. Downcut channels move water through the system faster, which causes less water to be stored in the banks of the streams and the surrounding wet meadows. These areas become drier and less productive (fewer and less vigorous plants), and less water is stored in their soils.
Less water stored in the surrounding areas means less wetland vegetation, which means further erosion and water moving through the system even faster. Over time, this creates a feedback loop, and the system keeps drying. It may seem a stretch to call this process desertification in a lush, high-mountain system, but it is.
A desertifying system is obviously not good for fish. By 2000, populations of native Río Grande cutthroat trout had been reduced to 10 percent of their historic range in the American Southwest. Trout Unlimited (a national, nonprofit conservation organization) proposes a strategy that emphasizes “restoring entire watersheds, not just individual streams,” and a “sustained conservation and recovery effort.” Quivira has taken this instruction to heart.
In order to help accomplish this goal for Comanche Creek Watershed, we have been on the ground for 12 years in the Valle Vidal system, and we have kept detailed records of the observed change during that period; however, 27,000 acres is a lot of ground to cover, and we have not been able to document the conditions in all the tributaries—until now.
This year, with funding from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Fish Passage Program, we began high-resolution digital mapping of streams in the Comanche Creek Watershed. Our method of choice is a 5.5-ft.-diameter weather balloon with a digital camera capturing pictures of the creek from approximately 50 feet up in the air.
[Editing Note: Since this is an imageless format and this article is very photo-dependent, some of the captions are included below. Please see PDF version of article for photos.]
PHOTO CAPTION:] After a lot of trial and error this summer, we think we have the balloon mapping method down. First, we have a list of balloon-mapping enemies, which include wind, hail, tree branches, pickup truck rides and the ever-rising cost of helium.
[PHOTO CAPTION:] Because of the New Mexico winds, we quickly determined that the best mapping time was between 6 and 8 am. This meant rolling out of a warm sleeping bag at 4:30 am to get to the mapping sites.
[PHOTO CAPTION:] This is the resolution of Comanche Creek from this summer’s balloon mapping. With clear images like this one, we will be able to identify and prioritize areas in need of restoration treatments. It took a lot of pictures to build the detailed creek images. The high-resolution image was made by “stitching” the four best images together from 187 digital images.
[PHOTO CAPTION:] The camera mounted on the balloon requires constant checking to change the aperture as the sun moves higher in the sky.
[PHOTO CAPTION:] The smallest amount of wind will cause the pictures to become a swirling, abstract photograph.
By 8 am, the wind often stopped us, and we grabbed our restoration tools and went to work, leaving the balloon mapping until the next morning. These detailed images, captured between 6 and 8 am, allow us to have a baseline map of watershed conditions in tributaries where we have not had the opportunity to work on the ground. They will also help us to track our restoration efforts to date and evaluate the successes and failures in tributaries and along the Comanche Creek mainstem and to continue to improve our restoration techniques. Finally, balloon mapping will also result in the prioritization of sites whose restoration would most positively impact RGCT habitat.
For more on the lessons learned from out summer of balloon mapping, visit the Quivira website later this fall.