Mules latest player in Wet Meadows project
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Matt Vasquez of the Forest Service is pictured with a mule hard at work on the Wet Meadows project.
Matt Vasquez of the Forest Service is pictured with a mule hard at work on the Wet Meadows project.

Often, the best solutions to a problem lie in time-tested approaches. In this case, that means turning to a form of transportation more common in a bygone era.

Organizers of the Wet Meadows Restoration-Resilience project in the Gunnison Basin are leaving behind powerful earthmoving equipment and machinery powered by petroleum in favor of four-legged laborers — namely, mules.

Typically, crews have relied on equipment — such as an ATV, excavator or a backhoe — to bring material to project sites, where volunteers and federal crews build small rock structures that slow the flow of water across the landscape.

The effort aims to improve habitat for Gunnison Sagegrouse and other wildlife, as well as forage for livestock, by restoring wet meadows amid the sagebrush that have disappeared as a result of erosion.

Within the Forest Service’s Region 2, the Gunnison Ranger District has a mule pack string available for various projects. The animals live along Hwy. 285 near Bailey, Colo. The agency utilized the animals a few weeks ago to haul rocks as part of the Wet Meadows project, and Tuesday the team of about a dozen mules were back in action carting rocks to the work site.

“This spot up at Flat Top, it’s two miles in,” said U.S. Forest Service hydrologist Ashley Hom. “We didn’t want to do the resource damage from excavators or ATVs because there’s no roads to the area.”

The project site north of Gunnison is one of eight completed so far this year. Others have occured on private, state or Bureau of Land Management property — or some combination thereof — but the area where the mules are working is entirely Forest Service land.

“To have people carry one rock at a time, or maybe five rocks at a time in a backpack, was going to be really slow going,” Hom said.

Wet Meadows project manager Tom Grant noted that the effort at times utilizes “native” rocks surrounding a project site. But doing so can be timeconsuming and degrading to the habitat. Additionally, quarried granite — which the mules carry — works better for the structures.

“It works well because it’s angular,” he explained. “It fits together well like a puzzle.”

In addition to less resource damage and the ability to cart rocks across steep slopes and into remote basins, Grant noted another benefit from using mules. Many of the youth conservation corps members who have provided labor this summer aren’t used to interacting with livestock.

Yet, crew members have helped feed, water and otherwise care for the mules during the course of a workday.

“It’s great just getting people to have a relationship with horses and mules that they’ve never had growing up,” Grant said.

The animals are staying at Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Miller Ranch while in the area and are led by a pair of caretakers on horseback. The animals are trailered daily from Miller Ranch to nearby Henkel Road on the flanks of Flat Top Mountain, before the animals begin hauling rocks up the mountain. The mules complete between four and five round trips each day, with 70 pounds of rock on each side of an animal’s saddle bags.

The animals are fed and watered every other load, Hom said.

She noted that the use of mules brings changes to the Gunnison Basin’s landscape full-circle.

Historically, the lands receiving the work would have included wet meadows. But then mules and wagon trains came along and began traveling the path of least resistance. Water collected on those trails, creating erosion and a lack of streams to store the finite resource on the landscape.

“It’s kind of ironic that we now have mules bringing back the rocks when they’re the ones historically that helped alter the landscape,” Hom said.

 

(Will Shoemaker can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at editor@gunnisontimes.com .)