CNHP Ecology Team

What We Do

CNHP’s Ecology Team includes ecologists specializing in wetland or terrestrial ecology, as well as an information manager who processes ecology data. The team works with CNHP staff and partners to survey Colorado’s landscape and document the distribution and condition of native vegetation in the state. Natural Communities of ColoradoEcology data is processed according to Natural Heritage Methodology, and stored in our Biodiversity Tracking and Conservation System (BIOTICS) Statewide Database. CNHP uses the National Vegetation Classification System as the basis for determining the conservation status of native plant communities in the state.

In addition to our central data collection mission, the Ecology Team works on a wide variety of other projects pertaining to ecology in Colorado and the Western US. For more information on these projects, see the sidebar, or check our documents and reports page.

About Colorado’s Native Vegetation

Colorado’s boundaries encompass some 66.6 million acres, or over 104,000 square miles. Within this area, the type and extent of natural vegetation is determined by many factors, including climate, elevation, soils, disturbance patterns, and the ecological history of the landscape. Large, contiguous areas that possess similar broad environmental conditions are called ecoregions. Colorado includes portions of six ecoregions (as defined by The Nature Conservancy, adapted from Bailey’s ecoregions). When considering the state as a whole, CNHP ecologists often lump these ecoregions into the general categories of Eastern Plains (Central Shortgrass Prairie ecoregion), Rocky Mountains (Southern Rocky Mountain ecoregion), and Western Valleys and Plateaus (Colorado Plateau, Utah High Plateaus, Utah-Wyoming Rocky Mountains, and Wyoming Basins ecoregions). Additional smaller areas that are often recognized include the Foothills transitional zone between the mountains and plains, and the High Inter-mountain Valleys such as South Park, North Park or the San Luis Valley.

CNHP ecologists focus primarily on those areas of Colorado where native vegetation is still intact and not on areas such as cities, croplands, and highly disturbed areas that no longer have natural vegetation. Over 75% of Colorado’s landscape remains covered by natural vegetation, especially in higher elevation areas.

There are many different ways of grouping and classifying vegetation as it occurs on the landscape. Because different uses may require different groupings, there is not necessarily one correct classification, but most classifications do share a few common characteristics. Generally, vegetation classifications try to group together assemblages of plant species that are typically found together, and that form repeating and easily identified patterns across the landscape. We usually divide habitats into terrestrial (upland) and wetland/riparian (riverine) groups. Within these categories, habitats may be further classified according to the form, height, and cover of the dominant, uppermost vegetation (e.g. forests, woodlands, shrublands, grasslands/herbaceous, and sparsely vegetated).

Classifications change with changing scale. For example, here is a map of Colorado vegetation classification shown at a coarse scale.

Coarse Scale Vegetation Classification

Click on the Map Above to See a Larger Version.

At a finer scale, here are the Ecological Systems of Colorado, which include about 60 different types. Some systems, especially wetlands, do not occur in patches big enough to show at this scale.

Finer Scale Vegetation Classification

Click on the Map Above to See a Larger Version.

The most detailed scale that we use is the “plant association” level. There are an estimated 750 different plant associations in Colorado, and there is no complete state-wide map of vegetation at this level. CNHP works to document plant associations in Colorado, and we currently track over 500 associations, including about 90 rare and imperiled types. See our Plant association tracking list.

All classifications are artificial to some extent. There are repeating patterns, but plants grow wherever they can, without regard to our classification schemes. Some types are more easily distinguished or more common than others. An association type may be truly rare, or may simply be poorly documented.