Way up in the willows: Walker wildlife area a haven for animals
At first glance, it seems there’s nothing here but weeds and willows, yet nearly 200 species of birds, including bald eagles, great blue heron, songbirds, shorebirds, owls, pheasants and waterfowl can be viewed at our own Walter Walker State Wildlife Area, only 5.9 miles from 4th and Main St. in Grand Junction.
You could also spy cottontail rabbits, deer, bobcat, beaver, porcupine, coyote, gray fox and raccoon if you’re alert.
Warmwater and coldwater fishing is available for catfish, bullhead, largemouth bass, bluegill and brown trout.
However, this is also home to threatened and endangered Colorado pikeminnows, humpback chubs, bonytail chubs and razorback suckers. In fact, that’s one of the biggest reasons this is such a valuable area. It helps protect those endangered fish.
So, who cares about a bunch of old chubs, suckers and minnows? Conservationists recognized years ago that native species are an important part of our nation’s wildlife heritage. Just as importantly, however, is the fact that these fish are indicators of water quality. Declines of native fish could mean that other animals — and humans — are being affected as well.
Since 1900, humans have caused the extinction of more than 40 types of native fish. Many fish native to the Colorado River Basin are found nowhere else in the world.
For example, that razorback sucker, named for the razor-like ridge on its back, was once plentiful in the Colorado River Basin. Now, it’s nearly extinct from lack of suitable places to lay eggs. Researchers at Walker SWA are working on ways to improve breeding grounds for this Colorado native.
Weighing up to 80 pounds, the Colorado Pikeminnow, formerly known as a squawfish or white salmon, used to be a delicious sport fish for native Americans living in the Grand Valley. This giant minnow is now endangered from the loss of backwater habitat.
Warm, slow-moving water nourishes a variety of plants and insects in this backwater area, providing tasty food for fish, birds and other wildlife. With plenty of food and shelter, backwater areas create nursery basins for these endangered fish.
Yet, while Walker SWA provides the space, there is still an issue with selenium in our water. If it weren’t for these fish, we would not be as aware of the problems with selenium. You see, the food we eat today probably provides us with all the selenium we need. It’s a natural element essential to good health. However, a little selenium goes a long way. Too much is deadly — for humans and wildlife.
Selenium is present all around us in the Grand Valley. It’s found in deposits of mancos shale. Selenium levels in the water at Walker are extremely high because we irrigate our land upstream. We have to if we want to grow anything around here, since we get such minimal amounts of rain in the arid west. However, when water seeps through the soil and picks up selenium, it later accumulates in ponds and backwater areas. Human actions upstream affect wildlife downstream. Everything, after all, is interconnected.
Here at Walker SWA, researchers from the Colorado Division of Wildlife, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Geological Survey are working together on an inter-agency project looking at selenium’s impact on native fish. Although this area may seem like a large weed patch, it’s providing scientists with valuable information on that interconnectedness thing.
Hunting is prohibited here, so it’s a safe place to hike. One nature trail in this unique urban wildlife area is handicap accessible.
It only takes about 20 minutes to trek along this paved trail, but you’ll learn a lot. That’s because the Colorado Division of Wildlife has constructed a number of informative signs and kiosks to tell you what this area is all about.
Once an old gravel mine, this 489-acre area was donated to the state as a wildlife sanctuary and study area by former Daily Sentinel publisher Walter Walker. It’s not hard to find: take the Riverside Parkway west past 24 Road where it turns into River Road.
Travel another 2.7 miles on the River Road and turn left just before the road goes underneath Interstate 70, at the Oneal Metals Company. There are a number of huge cylindrical metal containers out there. You can’t miss it. Stay on that road for about three-tenths of a mile and you’ll pull directly into the Walker SWA parking area.
Public access is prohibited from one-half hour after sunset to one-half hour before sunrise. The handicap accessible trail leads you through a small part of this wildlife area that’s changing into fall’s colors right now.
If you need a short hike and a little fresh air, check out Walker SWA. Look past the weeds and see what kind of wildlife you can find. You’ll be amazed.