Starter Guide For Healing Degraded Meadows With Hand-Built Structures In Sagebrush Country

Volunteers participated in a hands-on training day to learn how to install simple rock structures that improve natural water storage and restore wet habitat. Photo: Brianna RandallJune 4, 2018

New NRCS Technical Note provides a case study from Colorado’s Gunnison Basin to help partners replicate cost-effective watershed restoration techniques

The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Colorado just released a new technical note that explains how to use relatively simple, cost-effective structures to improve riparian areas and wet meadows on sagebrush rangelands.

Across the West, many small streams and meadows have been degraded by erosion and past land use activities, resulting in deep gullies and lowered water tables. Degraded wet areas are less able to store water throughout the year, making rangelands more susceptible to droughts or floods—and leaving wildlife and agricultural operations high and dry.

This new NRCS Technical Note is geared toward resource managers looking for relatively simple solutions for addressing shallow headcuts or small gullies impacting meadows and drainages in sagebrush rangelands. It’s called Hand-Built Structures for Restoring Degraded Meadows in Sagebrush Rangelands: Examples and lessons learned from the Upper Gunnison River Basin, Colorado.


 Listen to this new podcast from the Quivira Coalition featuring the collaborative wet meadow restoration work in Gunnison, Colorado!

“We teamed up with partners in Colorado’s Gunnison Basin to walk readers through the process of planning and installing a suite of low-tech, affordable structures that have been applied successfully to improve riparian and meadow function and boost productivity for livestock and wildlife,” says Jeremy Maestas, an ecologist with the USDA-NRCS.

The technical note highlights a landscape-scale project launched by the Gunnison Climate Working Group as a case study for how to build resilience in wet meadows and riparian areas. This locally-led group has been working collaboratively to install “Zeedyk structures” (designed by wetland restoration consultant Bill Zeedyk) that reduce erosion and help retain moisture in the soil.

Hard work pays off fast when building Zeedyk structures like this media luna. Grasses and sedges sprout through the rocks in just one season, improving the landscape for livestock and birds. Photo: Brianna Randall

Hard work pays off in no time when building Zeedyk structures like this media luna. Grasses and sedges sprout through the rocks in just one season, improving the landscape for livestock and birds. Photo: Brianna Randall

Mesic (wet) habitats comprise just a few percent of the arid American West. Yet these “emerald islands” provide critical resources required by most wildlife across sagebrush range as well as livestock. For example, sage grouse hens and their chicks rely on the high-protein food sources found in wet habitats, especially during the summer and fall when uplands dry out.

Zeedyk restoration techniques are generally designed to slow down and spread out water that’s running off the landscape by strategically installing a variety of structures (typically made of rocks, soil, and sticks) that capture sediment, increase soil moisture and boost vegetation, raise the water table, and reconnect streams to their floodplains. The Gunnison group focuses on repairing degraded streams and meadows where sage grouse brood-rearing habitat is a priority, and has built over a thousand structures since 2012.

“Headcuts and channel incision are very common problems throughout sagebrush rangelands,” says Maestas.

“The key is to learn to recognize and address resource problems early—before headcuts move upstream and gullies become too deep.”

Instead of just treating individual “sore spots,” the Gunnison project focuses on treating entire stream reaches, installing dozens of structures on both public and private land in prioritized drainages where likelihood of success is high.

Team members built this one-rock dam on public lands outside of Gunnison during the hands-on wet meadow restoration training workshop. Photo: Brianna Randall

Team members built this one-rock dam to improve water storage during a hands-on wet meadow restoration training workshop led by Bill Zeedyk and partners in Gunnison, Colorado.

These elegant, cost-effective restoration structures have proven remarkably successful for increasing riparian and meadow habitat. Grasses and sedges sprout through the rock structures as quickly as one year after installation, promoting the self-healing natural processes that curb erosion.

“These methods have great potential to work in other places,” says Betsy Neely, Colorado Climate Change Program Manager for The Nature Conservancy.

“This technical note is a wonderful way to share the most effective practices from the Gunnison Basin in Colorado with resource managers restoring wet meadows across the West,” says Neely.

Although Zeedyk techniques are widely used in the Southwest, the structures are less well-known across most of sage grouse range. Last June, the NRCS-led Sage Grouse Initiative hosted a workshop in Gunnison that showcased the utility of including these techniques in the toolbox for conserving wet habitats as part of the SGI Mesic Conservation Strategy.

The SGI workshop included a field tour that took 170+ participants to several sites restored by the Gunnison Climate Working Group. SGI also offered a half-day introduction on how to install these simple ‘sticks and stones’ structures, which was led by Bill Zeedyk and several members of the working group.

Wet meadows in sagebrush country provide vital forage for livestock, sage grouse, and other wildlife. SGI workshop participants learned how partners in Colorado worked together to restore this "Emerald Isle" near Gunnison.

Wet meadows in sagebrush country provide vital forage for livestock, sage grouse, and other wildlife. SGI workshop participants learned how partners in Colorado worked together to restore this “Emerald Isle” near Gunnison.

Afterward, participants wanted to better understand “the nuts and bolts behind the Gunnison project” in order to transfer the techniques to their own watersheds, explains Maestas. That’s why NRCS began working on the technical note.

Now available for free to the public, the new resource pulls together pieces of information from existing books and field guides produced by Bill Zeedyk, the Quivira Coalition, and others, and pairs it with the perspective of the local practitioners involved in the Gunnison Basin case study who are working to achieve goals shared by many partners across the sagebrush steppe.

The technical note provides information and references that help field practitioners get started by identifying opportunities, prioritizing and planning treatments, and implementing similar projects in watersheds across the West. It includes descriptions on how to:

  • Read the landscape to identify headcuts and channel incision
  • Plan and design treatments that address different resource problems
  • Prepare field crews and materials for construction
  • Build several different Zeedyk structures
  • Monitor and maintain the structures post-construction
Gunnison sage-grouse are found only in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. The birds' life cycles and habitat needs are highly compatible with grazing. This photo shows the town of Gunnison behind cattle in a wet meadow in sagebrush country. Photo: Shawn Conner

Gunnison sage-grouse are found only in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. The birds’ life cycles and habitat needs are highly compatible with grazing. This photo shows the town of Gunnison behind cattle in a wet meadow in sagebrush country. Photo: Shawn Conner

“We hope this new resource inspires land managers, and helps them engage others in wet meadow restoration projects in their communities,” says Maestas.

Download the new NRCS technical note >

Learn more about wet meadow restoration >

See the SGI Mesic Conservation Strategy >

Gunnison Basin Climate Working Group >

The Sage Grouse Initiative is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life. This initiative is part of Working Lands For Wildlife, which is led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.