Low-elevation plains riparian systems are found along rivers and streams throughout the western Great Plains.
At 250,000 acres, these plains riparian forests represent just 1 percent of the state’s forested lands, but they support a tremendous amount of biodiversity. Where plains riparian systems support forests, those forests typically are dominated by plains cottonwood in association with several species of willow and a variety of shrubs, grasses and forbs. Like montane riparian forests, plains riparian areas have a disproportionate benefit to wildlife species relative to their size. Native prairie fishes and amphibians (especially leopard frogs) are typical indicators of healthy plains riparian systems. Bald eagles occur here year-round and neotropical songbirds are common inhabitants during migration and breeding season. Other typical species include deer (white-tail and mule), Merriam’s turkey and a variety of owls.
Threats to the Plains Riparian Forest
Low-elevation riparian systems often are subjected to heavy grazing and/or other agricultural use, and can be significantly degraded. This degradation leaves them vulnerable to invasion by non-native grasses, forbs and shrubs. Tamarisk and Russian olive are particularly prominent. Riparian forests also may be seriously impacted by pollution, surface water diversions and groundwater depletions. Overall, prairie riparian and wetland ecological systems (along with shortgrass prairie) are the most altered of Colorado’s ecosystems.