Chico Magic

When reflecting on a possible blog post theme suitable for the waning year, I didn’t feel inspired to offer the traditional end-of-year-review, but thought of a cherished spot on the map where I spent a lot of time during this, and previous years. I recently wrote about one of my happy places, Fountain Creek Regional Park. Chico Basin Ranch is another.

As opposed to the former, which is located about 5 miles away from our front steps, the entrance to the latter lies 35 miles east from our driveway, so I don’t make it there as often as I would like. While I didn’t visit Chico Basin every single month this year, I have experienced all seasons and months there during the 5-plus years I have been privileged to know the place.

At nearly 90,000 acres, Chico Basin Ranch stretches across parts of both El Paso and Pueblo Counties, as it straddles the county line. It is one of the few remaining uninterrupted expanses of land in the United States with surviving native shortgrass and sandsage prairie. Almost as soon as I started spending time in prairie habitat, I learned to appreciate the landscape for its vast horizons, big skies, stark beauty, and hardy plants and animals. Prairie birds have always been among my favorites: Western Meadowlarks, Lark Buntings (the Lark Bunting is Colorado’s State Bird), Sage and Curve-billed Thrashers, Horned Larks, kingbirds, sparrows, and various other species. A comprehensive longitudinal study published by the journal Science in 2019 concluded that the overall bird population of the United States and Canada had suffered a dreadful 29% decline since 1970, resulting in the loss of nearly 3 billion birds, with grassland birds having experienced a 53% drop in numbers. All the more reason to protect those tracts of grassland that still exist. And to restore as many others as possible.

To enlarge a photo, click on it. To read its caption, hover your cursor over it. 

Chico Basin Ranch belongs to the Colorado State Land Board, but has been leased and managed since 1999 by an organization that became known as Ranchlands and is made up of ranchers who value land stewardship and conservation. The ranch raises seedstock Beefmaster cattle and Beefmaster-cross commercial calves. According to the organization’s website, it also engages “in guest programs, hunting and fishing, leather product manufacturing, education programs for K-12, college students and adults, ranch management training programs, arts programs, and ranch management services.” Additionally, the ranch offers a home to free-ranging horses, plus one very curious and affectionate burro who is known to poke his head into the open car window looking for TLC. The loveliness and conspicuous frolicking of the herd of horses resulted in a previous post which you can find here.

The presence of five spring-fed lakes and two small streams, Chico Creek and Black Squirrel Creek, assures the survival of a wide array of local flora and fauna, including some trees in an otherwise treeless environment. Insects abound, many rare ones among them, and all five classes of vertebrates are represented. Pronghorn, deer, jackrabbits, prairie dogs, and coyotes make their homes here and it’s the only locale where I reliably see porcupines. Before each trip to Chico, my husband always tells me “watch your step,” on account of the resident prairie rattlers—a helpful reminder, as birders tend to look up! Besides the lowing of cows, whinnying of horses, yelping of coyotes, barking of prairie dogs, buzzing of insects, and trilling of birds, the summer soundscape also resounds with the croaking of bullfrogs, which are numerous in the ponds and often sun themselves in plain view.

The circle of life

Not surprisingly, all this water and attendant life act as magnets for migratory birds as they travel along the edge of either the Pacific or Central Flyway which overlap in this part of the country. This special setting has made Chico Basin Ranch birding hotspot #1 in El Paso County, with 311 observed species, and #2 in Pueblo County, with 320 species, a high only exceeded by Pueblo Reservoir with 340 reported species. It is also the reason why one of Colorado’s three banding stations is operated on the El Paso County side of the ranch twice yearly during migration. If you would like to read about this fascinating experience in more detail, please take the time to visit this previous post.

It is fitting for a post that will straddle two years to also look ahead. What is true for many tracts of land is true for Chico Basin Ranch, whose future is uncertain. Ranchland’s lease will expire in 2024 and the Colorado State Land Board has suggested different uses for the land. A few years ago, its members suggested to split the ranch into different parcels to make more money from leaseholders, but changed their mind when they were flooded with correspondence from concerned citizens who emphasized the importance of keeping the land together.

One would assume that a Land Board’s primary goal is to protect the interests and the health of the land and all its denizens, but it was actually created to provide funding for public K-12 education, which is obviously an indispensable need. But so is the protection of surviving native prairie which has otherwise vanished from the majority of the Great Plains. Depending on the decision by Colorado State Land Board, which is expected soon, Chico Basin Ranch might no longer be the special and wonderful oasis it now represents. But many individuals and organizations have spoken out on behalf of this unique land, and there is still hope that the responsible party will listen and find a way not to prioritize economy over ecology.

A gorgeous Scaled Quail perched atop a cholla at Chico Basin Ranch.

I conclude by wishing each of you a healthy and peaceful new year, and with the more far-fetched wish that humanity will finally realize that the health of Nature has to become our top priority because without a healthy Earth, nothing else matters.

61 thoughts on “Chico Magic

  1. Das ist eine schöne Idee, statt der üblichen Rückblicke über ein Stück Natur zu erzählen und uns Bilder davon zu zeigen. Ich wünsche dir für 2023 ganz viele bezaubernde Naturerlebnisse und Vogelbegegnungen 🙂 LG Anna

    Liked by 2 people

  2. As you pointed out, native prairie is the most endangered habitat in the United States because almost all of it has been farmed, ranched, or built upon. I hope Chico Basin Ranch manages to hold together and keep providing people a great place to visit.

    Happy 2023 and happy peregrinations.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s easy to see why Chico Ranch is one of your “happy places”!

    Go there as often as possible. Don’t forget to take lots of pictures to share with those of us who need as many happy places as we can get!

    The New Year is off and running! Had a great morning stumbling around in dense fog. As the year progresses, just as when the fog lifts, things will become more clear.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Wally. I will follow your advice and keep visiting this wonderful place for as long as is possible without restrictions. And I’m sure I will share more of my impressions.
      I’m glad you found your way back home from the fog and hope the year ahead will be mostly sunny and clear for you. 😊
      Best wishes,
      Tanja

      Like

  4. Like you, I love the horizon that’s available to us on the prairies. It took me a good while to figure out the horizon is the commonality between the sailing I loved, and the prairies I love now. It wasn’t a mistake, or silliness, that people called their wagons ‘prairie schooners.’ As you sail into the new year, I hope your happy places become more well known, and that the people who come to them newly are moved to help with their protection.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Linda. I’m glad the prairie sea has enveloped you with its welcoming waves as well and love your idea of sailing ahead into the new year, hopefully with the wind mainly at our backs, and those pesky headwinds few and far between.
      All the best,
      Tanja

      Liked by 1 person

  5. You wrote “without a healthy Earth, nothing else matters”, and nothing could be more true or more important. With that in mind, I hope that the long-term future of the wonderful Chico Ranch can be secured, and that Nature can continue to flourish there. I wish you, too, a happy, healthy and peaceful New Year.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow, I’ve never even heard of this place yet it’s so close to home. Happy new year, Tanja! I could agree more with your closing statement, and I hope in 2023 more people begin to place protecting nature at the top of their priority list.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think there are still some hidden treasure in plain sight in Colorado that deserve to remain in the most natural state possible, Diana, and I hope that those people in responsible positions will realize their responsibility toward those places, and this planet in general.
      I’m returning your wishes for a wonderful new year.
      Tanja

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your insightful comment. This is a situation that requires a wise approach and I hope that the board members have the big picture before them.
      I also appreciate your good wishes for the new year which I would like to return.
      Best,
      Tanja

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you for that lovely “vacation” to Chico—I enjoyed every bit of it. There’s nothing like some “wide open space ” time, is there? Fingers crossed that Chico remains as it has been. It would be heartbreaking to lose it….
    Hope the first days of your New Year have been pleasant,
    Julie

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you enjoyed your exploration of Chico, Julie. I also hope the land will be kept together and be allowed to remain undeveloped.
      The arrival of a flock of Bohemian Waxwings in our county made many of us birders giddy with delight, which was a wonderful start to the new year indeed. I hope you also had a good start, and that it will continue in the same vein.
      All the best,
      Tanja

      Liked by 1 person

  8. What an lovely place and let’s hope wisdom prevails and its future conservation can be secured. Wishing you the very best for 2023 as we hope that our planet receives more respect and protection going forward for the good of us all.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. That sounds like a true gem of a place. We have a lot of efforts underway to preserve and re-establish prairies in IL and without question the number one issue is always the financial aspect – prairies have to mature on their own to become established, throwing some seeds out doesn’t cut it. Hoping they can find a way to keep your spot going (fingers crossed). Had to chuckle at the “watch your step” comment. Just had a really close encounter with a rather large copperhead that a) was not happy I had accidentally entered its personal space and b) was shockingly “too intent” to make sure I never considered doing that again… and yes, I was looking up at the time hehehe. Thanks for make me aware of this interesting area.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is a true gem, and I hope it will continue to be cherished for what it is.
      I’m glad your serpentine encounter ended ok. I almost stepped on a rattler at Chico once, but luckily it was a cool morning and it was moving very slowly.
      If you ever make it to this area, you should definitely put Chico on your must-visit list.
      Good luck with your IL prairie project!

      Like

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