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A Survey of the Herpetofauna of the Comanche National Grasslands in Southeastern Colorado

Conservation of Colorado's Herpetofauna--Why Bother?

(Taken from the January 1997 Progress report to CDOW)

In an era of tightening budgets which require preferential allocation of limited funds for conservation, an opinion voiced in some circles is whether wildlife managers and conservationists have the luxury of protecting many of Colorado's non-game animals. They do not generate any revenue, as do game animals and attendant hunting licenses. They are usually not showy and impressive, as are species such as elk, pronghorns and even prairie chickens. So why protect them, or worry about their fates? The reasons are myriad and compelling, and in order to perform our functions as stewards of these grassland habitats, we must be aware of the status of these animals and concerned about their fates. Enumerated below are a few reasons why the status of non-game animals has importance and relevance for wildlife management, conservationists, ranchers, hunters and people in general.

  1. Early warning sensors - amphibians in particular are sensitive to environmental changes and pollutants, and negative changes in their populations likely indicates that larger problems are looming for other animals (such as us) as well. They absorb many compounds readily across their skins and may be affected at levels that are much lower than those necessary to affect other animals such as larger mammals. Many frog species are in decline worldwide, and the reasons include habitat loss, water pollution (including acidification) and increased UV load resulting from high atmospheric pollution.

  2. Indicators of habitat quality - the presence of southeastern Colorado's smaller non-game species such as amphibians and reptiles, as well as their relative abundance, indicates a healthy and dynamic grassland habitat. Such habitat can support a wide variety of animals, game, non-game and commercial/domestic. Conscientious ranching practices, such as those exemplified by the Palmer ranch in Lincoln County, allows for local families with a tradition on the plains to continue to enjoy their lifestyle and to protect the diverse plant and animal life which is our state and national heritage.

  3. Contributing components of prairie ecosystems - many small species of amphibians and reptiles, such as frogs and lizards, are essentially "annual crops" which convert huge amounts of "non-useful" biomass into useable forms (i.e., more frogs and lizards). As a consequence of their particularly efficient metabolic processes, these animals can provide food (i.e., themselves) to higher consumers in food webs at a much greater rate than could birds or mammals. These small animals therefore provide a critical component to the larger food web of interactions and energy exchanges which ultimately support the top consumers.

  4. General esthetics and public appeal - as people become more familiar with things formerly considered repulsive, they develop an appreciation for them. This is particularly true for amphibians and reptiles, many of which are quite striking in their form and colors. It is for this reason that I enjoy giving presentations to schools on these animals-they always hold the audiences' attention.

  5. Importance of biodiversity - genetic diversity is often important to maintenance of species continuance, and the interactions between species is often so complex that if one disturbs one component, unpredicted results can occur. For example, nematicide compounds initially greatly increase crop yields by eliminating a major source of crop morbidity. However, these practices often disturb or destroy soil ecosystems necessary for replenishment of soil nutrients, resulting in soils of poorer quality. Decreases in or elimination of amphibian and reptile populations, particularly in harsher environments such as the plains, likely will have a very significant effect on the many animals which depend on them for prey. In addition, preservation of biodiversity can benefit us in ways not immediately apparent. I have worked with snake venoms for a number of years, and many of the compounds in venoms have the potential for clinical use for human disorders. A human benefit is therefore possible from an animal many would consider a threatening pest at best. Wildlife managers and conservation biologists have a responsibility to maintaining biodiversity, and it is likely to benefit us in much more tangible ways than simply to satisfy an esoteric appreciation of a native environment.

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