Beyond a boggy meadow studded with beaver ponds, along the Slate River where it meanders past a bottom-rung ridge of Mount Emmons, is a prime patch of real estate for wetlands critters.
Great blue herons have claimed it.
The busy avian penthouse subdivision here — believed to be the highest altitude great blue heron colony in Colorado — is currently home to 18 nesting pairs of herons. They have turned lodgepole pines along the Slate into a high-rise nursery for at least 40 gangly chicks.
The herons are here, a mile outside Crested Butte, because of an unlikely local volunteer effort.
In a town where outdoor recreation trumps just about all — where mountain bike and hiking trailheads and river put-ins are often stuffed to the gills, and where river restrictions have sparked ugly legal battles in the past — floaters and paddle boarders have agreed to stay off this 4.4 mile-long stretch of river from mid-March through mid-July.
That is when this ancient bird species most needs some family time and space. It is the season when the herons mate, build nests, lay and hatch eggs, and see their chicks fledge into the wild blue yonder.
Now, in its third year, the most visible embodiment of the community-crafted heron effort is an old pickup truck that sits along Slate River Road with a large sign in back.
“Our CB Community Asks Please Don’t Scare the Herons. Don’t Float by the Nests Through July 15th” the sign reads.
More “please-don’t” signs are posted along the road where the herons are visible through binoculars. Other signs along the river ask those who have bobbed in there in spite of the don’t-float recommendation to pass through quietly, to keep a low profile and not to stop. Two “stewards” are also stationed at put-in points on the river to educate floaters about why river parties are not a good thing in that stretch and to gently urge them to consider going elsewhere.
Final tallies for those who choose to ignore that request won’t be in until the end of the no-float period when infrared counters on the river yield their data. But human counters report about 40 individuals have been observed floating this section of the Slate this season. That represents a more than 90% decrease in Slate traffic since the voluntary no-float effort began. Prior to that, groups of a hundred or more kayakers, tubers and paddle boarders were known to clog the river in a single day.
They would load up on beer and crank loud music. They left trash and used the riverbanks as a toilet. They whooped it up in floating parties on one of the prettiest stretches of river in Gunnison County, not recognizing that it was also one that was crucial to survival of a longtime local bird population.
The herons have been on this stretch of river since at least the early 2000s, though some put them here in the 1990s. They had more or less tolerated humans until stand-up paddle boards became the rage around 2015 and resulted in the riverway jams. Even before that, Crested Butte’s scenic environs were beginning to feel the crowd crunch of more summer than winter visitors.
Great blue herons don’t like being in proximity to humans. But they are especially sensitive to interference during their canoodling period, when the males gallantly bestow nest-building sticks on their chosen mates. Once they are into the family-building phase, if the giant birds are spooked by the ruckus of partying flotillas down below, they will unclench the big hind toes they use to hang on to swaying branches and temporarily leave their nests. That leaves eggs and chicks vulnerable to hawk, eagle, osprey and raven predators. Great blue herons have been known to totally abandon their saucer-like nests and move on if they are repeatedly frightened.
Crested Butte’s “quiet-time” reprieve for herons had its start in late 2017 after Tim Szurgot, who lives in the nearby aptly named WildBird Estates subdivision, became upset by seeing the distraught birds flapping around their nests when floaters came through.
Szurgot had lived in Aspen and seen what happened when herons and other wildlife fled the North Star Nature Preserve because of boisterous crowds of boaters on the Roaring Fork River. It took a Pitkin County management plan and a cadre of rangers and forest protection officers to settle down that sylvan brouhaha.
Szurgot said he knew that kind of heavy-handed crack-down wouldn’t work around Crested Butte. Any kind of mandated river restrictions could be dicey in Gunnison County where there had been highly contentious disputes in the past over restrictions to access on the Taylor River and the Lake Fork of the Gunnison.
Vague, never-quite-settled right-to-float laws in Colorado would have turned any shut-downs of the Slate River into a long drawn-out legal quagmire. Fencing off the river could have blown up into a local water war.
“That legal-schmegal stuff – we didn’t really want to get into it,” Szurgot said. “We wanted to do it without having a bunch of lawyers involved.”
There was also the complication of having a crazy-quilt patchwork of landowners and conservation easements along the Upper Slate River. It included private owners, the town, the Crested Butte Land Trust, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
Szurgot went to the land trust with his concerns. The land trust owns the property where the Slate winds directly under the heron colony. The Town of Crested Butte holds the conservation easement.
“I said, ‘there’s these great birds out there and they seem to be disturbed.’”
The problem put the land trust in a pinch. Important parts of its mission are to protect wildlife but also to provide recreational opportunities. So, the land trust brought together a group of 18 stakeholders — conservation and public land management agencies, bird experts, floaters, biologists and nearby landowners — to work on a solution.
“It didn’t come without some kicking and screaming, for sure,” said land trust stewardship manager Brian Lieberman. “We started with a mediator, and looked at ‘how do we move forward without biting at each other’s throats?’ Everybody needed to give a little bit of compromise.”
In a slew of meetings, the Slate River Working Group came up with a plan that at first blush seemed unlikely: “Why not ask people to voluntarily stay away from that section of river for a few months in spring and early summer?”
Sounds simple enough. But, around Crested Butte, there is limited time when the rivers are flowing high enough for floating. Those months coincide with the sensitive time for the herons.
“It was a big ask,” Szurgot said, “People are all about getting out there for the two months when the rivers are flowing around here.”
The group did a boatload of homework to bolster public education. Western State University in nearby Gunnison was brought in to conduct a research project. Assistant professor of wildlife and conservation biology Patrick Magee and some of his students began counting the herons and recording every move they made. They also observed and listed the behavior and impact of human floaters and the other animals in the wildlife-rich area.
In 2018, after the no-float effort went into effect, there were 200 river recreationalists recorded over the entire sensitive time for the birds. Last year didn’t yield counts; heavy runoff caused the Gunnison County Sheriff’s Office to shut down floating on all rivers in the county in spring and early summer.
This year, the humans observed on the river have been quiet, according to the student observers and the land trust stewards. They have not seen any floating parties.
Not everyone agrees the birds need to be saved. They are found throughout much of North America. They aren’t endangered. The oldest remains of great blue herons date back 1.8 million years. Their ancestry is believed to stretch to the dinosaur era more than 200 million years ago — not bad for birds with such a nervous constitution.
“There is a disparity of feeling about these birds,” said Denis Hall, who lived in the Wildbird subdivision for decades and has been advocating for their continued presence even after moving from there in 2007.
For those who don’t believe herons need some peace and quiet, there is a bit of history in Gunnison County that proves otherwise. There used to be a colony of about 100 pairs nesting in cottonwoods near the Neversink trailhead in the Curecanti National Recreation Area west of Gunnison. The birds abandoned that colony after a rancher let his cattle graze there and more motorized vehicles began zipping around the area.
Magee said he wishes people would look at the Slate River heron colony like they do habitat for the Gunnison sage grouse, which is listed as a threatened species. There was a lot of griping when areas of Gunnison County were closed off to protect the grouse during mating season. Opponents even shot locks off road-closure gates. Now, public sentiment has mostly settled into acceptance.
Magee said he is happy there is a no-float period established, but he wishes public sentiment would allow for the Slate River that period to stretch until September when all the chicks have fledged.
“We have heard that sentiment,” Lieberman said. “There are some who say ‘we are going to float while we can’.”
The working group is relying on just a little more patience in what has been a successful human/heron experiment thus far.
“Humans can compromise,” Magee said. “Herons can’t. It’s a loss for herons if humans don’t compromise. It’s a loss for humans if we don’t take care of the herons.”