August 15, 2023

WRC Buys a Subalpine Meadow to Replenish Cutthroat Habitat

Dunton Meadows
Dunton Meadows
Photography | Mindy Lundy Kramer

High in the mountains of southwestern Colorado, Western Rivers Conservancy continues to build momentum in its efforts to protect Dunton Meadows, a critically important meadow at the headwaters of the renowned Dolores River. In May, following years of negotiation, we used interim funding to purchase the prized 159-acre Dunton Meadows tract, which spans most of this fragile high-elevation wetland. We will now hold the property until permanent funding is available to protect it in perpetuity.

Situated between the Dolores’ East and West forks, at around 10,000 feet in the San Miguel Mountains, Dunton Meadows lies at the headwaters of some of the best habitat anywhere for imperiled Colorado River cutthroat trout. The property centers on a broad wetland meadow near the southern edge of the Lizard Head Wilderness and is surrounded by national forest.

Dunton Meadows is a vibrant subalpine oasis, and its expanses of thick grasses, shrubs and willow-lined streams, including the aptly named Meadow Creek, support all manner of birds, mammals, insects and fish. As idyllic as such high meadows are to the senses, much of their ecological benefit accrues silently in places we can’t see, far underground. Wet meadows serve as cold-water sponges, collecting and holding spring snowmelt and stormwater for gradual release later in summer and fall. In the process, they filter out excess nutrients and silt to improve water quality and enrich soils. These habitats also recharge critical groundwater stores that reemerge downstream throughout the watershed as cold-water inputs and refuges for fish. And wetland meadows capture and store more carbon pound-for-pound than most other habitat types, making them invaluable conduits of climate health.

Dunton Meadows feeds into a Dolores headwater tributary called Coal Creek, a stronghold for imperiled Colorado River cutthroat trout. A major reason Coal Creek remains healthy and cold is the presence of high, cold-water sponges like Dunton Meadows.

We are now working to secure funding through the Land and Water Conservation Fund to convey Dunton Meadows to the San Juan National Forest, ensuring permanent protection of the meadow and public access to several popular trails and trailheads on the property. The project is a top priority for the San Juan National Forest. By permanently protecting this outstanding property, WRC will ensure the health not only of Dunton Meadows, but of the critical cold-water streams it feeds and the ability for people to explore this high-mountain paradise.

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