Protecting a vulnerable great blue heron rookery

Despite recreation pressures, a Colorado community comes together to preserve the wildness of the place they live in.

This story was originally published at Gunnison Country Times and is republished here by permission.

Tucked away from the main road, Tim Szurgot’s house can’t be reached by car, and instead requires a brief walk on foot through a narrow gateway of greenery. The path leads to a rickety wooden bridge over Western Colorado’s Slate River, relatively low and slow moving this late in the summer.  

The Slate twists and turns through Szurgot’s backyard, and as the hill drops away from his home, the land slowly dissolves into willows and wetlands — some of the most productive in Colorado. The wetland ecosystem is full of life and home to more than 60 species of birds — the source of the neighborhood’s name: Wildbird. 

Amongst the migratory waterfowl and wandering elk, Szurgot described Slate River Valley as a great blue heron “superhighway.” Chances are, if someone sees a heron up Brush Creek or Cement Creek or elsewhere in Gunnison County, it’s coming back here, he said. 


The coniferous trees surrounding the upper Slate River house a great blue heron rookery, split into an upper and lower colony — possibly the highest elevation rookery in the country. To protect the herons during their nesting period, the 4.4 mile stretch of winding river from Gunsight Bridge, nestled in the gateway to the Oh Be Joyful drainage down river to the Rec Path Bridge in Crested Butte, has a recommended no-float period from March 15 to July 15.

Great blue heron nests are hidden in dead lodgepole pine trees along the upper Slate River.

Flash back 50 years to when the first houses were built along the Slate in the 1970s, Szurgot said the Wildbird community was one of the first to draw attention to the disturbance created by floaters who passed under the nesting herons who arrive in March each year to breed, whether the valley is blanketed in snow or not. Although residents and visitors have been floating the Slate “forever,” the explosion of the popularity of the stand-up paddleboard after 2010 attracted sometimes nearly 100 people per day to the upper stretch, and underneath the nesting herons. 

Worried about the heron population as river recreation boomed, neighbors went to the Crested Butte Land Trust to look for a solution. In 2018, the Slate River Working Group — made up of more than 15 stakeholders, including representatives from the Town of Crested Butte, the ranching community, local business, environmentalists and land management agencies — was formed to address the conflict between river recreationalists and the nesting herons that called the once quiet Slate home.

The Slate river flows under Gunsight Bridge.

Now, 2022 marks the end of a five-year study that quantified river usage, brought in river stewards and initiated a community push to protect the rookery in one of the most pristine wetlands in the state. As the study comes to a close, the community’s willingness to compromise makes it a story of success, backed by residents who hope the herons return year after year and long after they are gone.

“This is a wild place still, although we are right next to town,” Szurgot said. “I want it to be that way for my kids.” 

“This is a wild place still, although we are right next to town. I want it to be that way for my kids.” 

Szurgot grew up in the cityscape of Chicago, and didn’t even know what a great blue heron was. When he and his family moved to Crested Butte in 2011, he said he was unaware of how magical the spot was and the responsibility that came with it. His family has made sacrifices in an attempt to preserve the landscape they live in, only venturing so far into the backyard and refraining from floating like they used to. 

“We should all try to be part of the solution, which is not easy in this day and age,” he said.

Crested Butte resident Antonio Valdez pumps up his paddle-board at the Slate River Boat Launch, the primarily put in for the lower stretch of the Slate.

The Wildbird subdivision has housed residents who fought not only for the birds, but for the wildness of the place. But it’s getting harder and harder, he said. Directly downstream, a multi-million dollar home is being constructed close to the wetland’s edge. 

“When the money moves in, it’s hard to battle,” Szurgot said. “It’s hard to stand up to that.” 

Szurgot said the work that the Slate River Working Group has accomplished gives him hope that the birds will recover. This summer, he’s seen less than 60 watercrafts pass underneath the herons, the traffic moving mostly to the lower section where up to 100 floaters, boaters and tubers pass through in a single day. 

“Some people have the narrative ‘oh it’s just loud landowners who don’t want people coming through their property’ and that’s not it at all … If people still want to float it, float it, but do know that your recreation is potentially changing the makeup of a place.”

Tubers launch from the new Slate River Boat Launch, which was constructed during the fall of 2021 and opened this spring.

‘We’ve already taken so much’

With a spotting scope slung over his shoulder, Pat Magee trudged through the forest that snaked along the Slate River, the tip of Gothic Mountain visible on the horizon. In the distance, heron chicks screamed for dinner as a parent alighted on the nest. To a passerby, the sound was loud and jarring, like the sound of tiny dinosaurs hungry for food.

Magee, associate professor of wildlife and conservation biology at Western Colorado University, has been monitoring the birds since the study began five years ago. Approximately 300 meters away, he watched dead lodgepole pines where the nests are hidden, counting the chicks, which hatched in early to mid-May. 

Pat Magee watches the great blue heron nests from about 300 meters away, the desired buffer zone. By July 15, the end of the voluntary closure, usually about 50% of the chicks have fledged, “a compromise that is not perfect, but definitely helps,” he said.

Because great blue herons are colonial nesters, the entire regional population is in one spot, making them especially vulnerable. While river recreation makes up less than 1% of all recreation in the Slate River Valley, more than 80% of the disturbance to the herons is associated with that small portion. 

In 2018, Magee recorded 25 active nests. In 2021, the number had fallen by nearly half — “an alarming downtrend,” Magee said. This year, he counted 17, but two blew out of the trees during the intensely windy spring months. 

One of his students, Camryn Uetz, has been visiting the nests twice a week since the birds first arrived in March. She keeps detailed accounts of their behavior and the amount of noise on the road, marking the number of people walking, biking and driving by as well as floating along the river. 

If the community doesn’t find a middle ground — balancing recreation and the space the birds need —  their populations are just going to keep getting smaller, Uetz said. 

“It’s really important that we try to preserve what we have left, because we’ve already taken so much,” she said. 

Pat Magee takes detailed notes on each numbered nest site, a “dynamic map” of happenings as the chicks prepare to take their first flights.

An exception to the rule 

In 2014, stand-up paddleboarding on the Slate River was a novel concept and by 2017, people were ready to to fight over it, said Jake Jones, the executive director of the Land Trust. From a historic perspective, very few people bothered to float it because there is not really any whitewater. This changed with the commercialization of stand-up paddleboarding and easy access to the equipment, he said. 

“A raft is pretty expensive, a kayak requires really special training,” Jones said. “But stand-up paddleboards made these rivers accessible to a lot of people very quickly.” 

In addition to the data Magee and his students collect, the Land Trust has attempted to quantify usage along the Slate each summer as well as employing a river steward that moves between the Gunsight Bridge and the new Slate River Boat Launch put ins to educate river goers — giving them the most information possible to make an educated choice, said Landan Schaller, who began working as steward at the beginning of the season.

Landan Schaller, river steward for the Crested Butte Land Trust, is responsible for educating river goers about the delicate balance between wildlife, private property and recreation along the Slate.

Even though the voluntary no-float means that some individuals choose to float anyway, the Slate River Working Group’s ask has been largely successful. Between 2019 and 2021, the number of recreationalists floating the upper stretch has fallen by 64%. 

“We often hear about sort of sad stories in conservation, and when and where people aren’t able to get along, and were not able to come up with solutions that work in the long run,” Schaller said. “I don’t think this is one of those stories.” 

As the West continues to grapple with the ongoing effects of a 20-year drought, closing the upper section until July 15 has frequently meant a full-season closure due to low flows along the Slate. The last year there was enough water left to float was 2019 — a risk high enough some may choose to float during the voluntary closure because there may not be another choice. 

Despite this, Jones compared floating during the voluntary closure to someone having a campfire during a fire ban. 

“Of course, a paddleboard is not going to light the forest on fire, but if everyone’s the exception to the rule then we’re going to lose precious resources, in this case that population of birds,” Jones said. 

A great blue heron flies over the wetlands.

Bella Biondini is the Gunnison Country Times associate editor. 

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