The Colorado Plateau is becoming one of our country’s most popular and conflicted regions – a coveted remnant of American wilderness, a hotbed of growing human pressures and an at-risk home for unique species and systems.
Colorado Plateau: Nowhere Else on Earth
The Colorado Plateau, flanked by the Rocky Mountains on the east and the Great Basin on the west, spans 76,000 square miles across four states, and rises from below 2,000 feet to almost 13,000 feet in elevation. Although it is a desert, the Plateau contains two of the continent’s largest rivers. The Colorado and the Green provide water to millions of people in seven U.S. states and Mexico, including five of the country’s fastest-growing cities.
The complex geology and specialized land forms of the Plateau support numerous species found nowhere else in the world. Plants are the most biologically diverse group, with 300 endemic species found only on the Plateau. The region also provides critical habitat for some of the West’s most charismatic species including desert bighorn sheep, pronghorn and mountain lions as well as a wealth of aquatic species, such as the endangered Colorado pikeminnow and humpback chub.
A Growing Need
The Colorado Plateau is facing mounting ecological problems that threaten its lands and waters. Invasive plants and animals, recreation, development and inappropriate grazing are disrupting ecosystems, threatening water resources and devastating native species. More than 150 of the Plateau’s plant and animal species are considered at risk, and 27 species are currently listed as Endangered or Threatened.
In addition, scientists predict that the Colorado River Basin is on track for severe and unprecedented drought which, when combined with higher temperatures, will accelerate the loss of native vegetation and wildlife habitat - encouraging an explosion of invasive species such as cheatgrass - and reduce soil moisture and a range of associated problems, such as:
- Accelerated plant death;
- Increased susceptibility of soils to wind erosion;
- More wind-deposited dust on western snowpacks; and,
- Accelerated snowmelt and decreased runoff, threatening the quality and quantity of Colorado River water.
The Canyonlands Research Center and the scientists, agencies and partners involved are working to address these growing threats using on-the-ground research and developing working solutions for land managers throughout the West.