More than 1,000 acres of private land six miles northwest of Dove Creek is protected from future commercial or residential development under a new conservation easement.
Property owners Dan and Anita Fernandez partnered with the Montezuma Land Conservancy to reach the agreement. Their 1,180-acre spread off Highway 491, called Sundown Farm and Ranch, features a mixture of wetlands, rolling hills and active grazing pastures, and is home to threatened bird species like the Gunnison sage-grouse and burrowing owl.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has said the grouse warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act. Habitat destruction has fragmented the ground-dwelling bird's range and contributed to significant population declines over the last century. It now occupies approximately 56 percent of its original range across the western United States and Canada. They rely on sagebrush for shelter and a winter food source.
"Sage grouse and sagebrush are inextricably linked in the landscape of the American West. Many of us that live and work here cannot imagine one without the other," said Chris Kloster, a local biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, in a statement. "Protecting sagebrush habitat is the keystone to conserving this iconic bird, and in places like Dolores County, having landowners like Dan and Anita is vital to ensuring the future for this species. The presence of sage-grouse on their property is a testament to their stewardship."
Since 1998 the conservancy has completed 68 easements - totalling 34,114 acres - in Montezuma and Dolores counties. All the properties remain under private ownership but are subject to permanent restrictions against development. Public access is not required.
The couple bought the property in 1990 as an investment, intending to subdivide and sell the newly-built homes for profit. But about six years ago they had a change of heart.
"I was thinking of my retirement," Dan Fernandez said. "But we decided it was too beautiful and too diverse to (develop). We went this route instead."
Funding for the easement came from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the local Montelores Habitat Protection Program.