The Uncompahgre Plateau had long been a favorite hunting ground of Native Americans when the first Spanish explorers came to Southwestern Colorado in the 1760’s. The Ute Indian tribes consisted primarily of highly mobile hunting and gathering groups who had adapted their lifestyles to the seasonal variation and movement of the regional flora and fauna. Over time, they formed attachments to special places for hunting, fishing, gathering, and ceremonial uses. They also developed noticeable, well-established trails from one place to another. The Utes were very dependent on horses, which they adopted in the 1600s. By the 1800s, there were many horses per family. Therefore, grazing of horses would have been an ongoing activity on the Plateau for over a century prior to the arrival of Euro-American settlers. However, impacts to the range would have been limited or localized because of the highly mobile lifestyle of the Utes. The Ute Indians continued to inhabit the Plateau as an ever-increasing number of trappers, explorers and prospectors came to the area.
European settlement brought about rapid changes on the Uncompahgre Plateau after the Ute Indians were relocated to Utah by the US government in 1881. Settlers built towns and roads, mined minerals, harvested timber, introduced cattle, diverted and stored water, cleared land and cultivated crops, and built railroads to import and export commodities.
Soon after the Utes were forced to leave the Plateau, the cattlemen moved in with their herds. The lands were unmanaged, grazing was uncontrolled, and livestock numbers increased rapidly. On the south end of the Plateau, Placerville became the number one railhead in the world for shipping cattle (Marshall 1981). Grazing was a free-for-all and range disputes were commonplace. According to Marshall (1981), “Competition for grass reached self-destruct excesses when the range was wide open. The herds were enormous… Many of the huge cattle companies were absentee owners... they mined grass the way they mined gold veins – to get it all and get out”. Domestic sheep were introduced to the Plateau early in 1915 and further increased grazing pressure (Smith 1937).
A 1944 BLM Range Management Plan for the Escalante Unit of the Uncompahgre Plateau (BLM 1944) provides some perspective on how quickly the Plateau changed after settlement. According to this document, Jefferson Davis Dillard, a cowboy that began working on the Plateau in the 1880’s, “claimed (that initially) the creeks and streams on the mountain (Uncompahgre) were flowing on top of the ground, meandering through the meadow grass, without the deeply defined channels now present. There was no underbrush in those days and a cow was visible for long distances unless hidden by the tall lush grass. He often spoke of how many of the streams had cut deep channels lowering the bed of the stream many feet in the space of 40 years or less and of how the underbrush and aspen had come in so thickly during his lifetime. The Indians made a practice of burning if off in the early days”.
As a result of the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act, the federal government regulated grazing on the public domain. This congressional act had a major impact on the West. Cattle numbers on the Plateau fluctuated based on demand and drought but numbers generally remained high well into the 1940’s. As a result of modern grazing management practices initiated by agencies and ranchers, range conditions have significantly improved in most areas during the last 50 years.
Extensive logging operations in the 1880’s were the result of demand for lumber in the growing communities around the Plateau. Sawmills were constructed on the Plateau and moved to the timber sources as the need arose. Timber operations occurred along the entire length of the Plateau. Some of the best timber was found on the south end. Marshall (1981) describes the cost of lumber sold by the military at $40 per thousand board feet (in the 1880’s), but in a short time so many sawmills were working on the Plateau that competition and efficiency had brought the cost of lumber to $8 per thousand. Marshall (1981) further describes the impacts of logging. “In those boom construction days when mushrooming towns, mines, and railroads were lumber hungry, many of the mills ran all winter, right through deep snows. The lumber was loaded from the mill onto bobsleds and dragged by horse or oxen down to an altitude where the snow could be coped with better by wheels than runners. There it was loaded onto wagons and hauled the rest of the way to Montrose, Olathe and Delta and by railroad to Ouray, Nucla, Norwood, Grand Junction, and other points east, west, north and south. As lumber companies moved onto the Plateau, roads were hacked in, opening up stands of timber pre-empted by the Stone and Timber Act. Logging roads, contemporaneous with salt roads provided some of the earliest access routes on the mountain”.
The Uncompahgre National Forest was established in 1905 to manage natural resources, including planning and regulating timber harvest, grazing, road building and other activities. This was the beginning of active management on the Plateau.
Local logging began to greatly diminish in the 1970’s as a result of numerous factors, including outside competition, tighter regulations on waste burning and air quality, reduced availability of timber sales, NEPA appeals, environmental compliance and other factors. Very few new roads have been authorized for construction since the mid 1980’s as a result of the reduction in timber sales by the USFS.
Intensive gold and silver mining activity began in the San Juan Mountains just to the south of the Plateau in the 1870=s. With the exception of some placer mining for gold along the San Miguel and Dolores Rivers, very little precious metal mining actually occurred on the Plateau. The Dave Wood Road was built across the Plateau in 1881to haul supplies to the mines and the Plateau became a source of timber, wild game meat, and livestock for the miners.
Intensive exploration and mining for uranium and vanadium occurred on the northwest part of the Plateau between the 1930s and 1980s. The effects of this industry (i.e., roads, runways, seismic lines, mines, mills, and tailings) are readily apparent between Nucla and the Unaweep Canyon. Reclamation of prior mining and milling sites is now the primary focus of the uranium/vanadium industry on the Plateau.
Early settlers followed many of the trails used by the Ute Indians. It is speculated that many of the existing roads were constructed along these routes. As demand for lumber for mining camps and settlements increased, logging expanded throughout the Plateau resulting in the construction of numerous roads. As cattle and sheep grazing increased, salt trails and roads expanded into more remote locations. Uranium and vanadium exploration and mining resulted in extensive road development in the northwest portion of the Plateau. Hunters and outdoors recreational enthusiasts continue to expand the road and trail system.
Unregulated hunting and habitat changes brought about by settlement resulted in the extirpation of elk, wolves and grizzly bears from the Plateau early in the 20th century and deer numbers were greatly reduced. A cowboy reminisced that in the 1920’s “…if one of the men saw a deer during the course of a day’s ride that it was worthy of mention that evening to the rest of the men.” (BLM 1944).
By the late 1930’s, deer numbers on the Plateau began to noticeably increase, presumably as a result of restricted hunting and habitat changes favorable to deer. Livestock grazing and the absence of fire likely caused forbs and shrubs preferred by deer to replace grass. Agricultural areas in the Uncompahgre Valley and around the Nucla/Norwood areas also benefited deer. By the 1950’s, deer numbers had soared and there was concern deer were becoming too numerous and destroying their habitat. Hunting seasons and bag limits were greatly liberalized in an attempt to control the exploding deer population. Deer numbers probably reached their peak in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. By 1970, deer had declined to the point that hunting was restricted to bucks only and management was directed once again towards trying to increase deer numbers. The deer population rebounded in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s only to go into a steady decline in the 1990’s despite the elimination of doe harvests.
Elk were reintroduced to the Plateau in 1923 with a release of 18 animals west of Montrose. Over the next 34 years, elk numbers slowly increased resulting in the first legal hunting season on the Plateau being held in 1957. Elk numbers began to increase very rapidly during the 1970’s and 1980’s reaching an estimated post-hunt population of approximately 9,000 in 1990. Over the last decade, greatly increased cow elk harvest has maintained the elk population at approximately 9,000.
Between the 1930’s and the early 1970’s, extensive habitat treatments occurred on the Plateau primarily to benefit livestock. These treatments included contouring, plowing, chaining of pinyon-juniper, herbicide spraying of sagebrush and Gambel oak, burning, and water developments. Most treatments were not re-seeded or were re-seeded with non-native species such as crested or intermediate wheatgrass. These treatments reached their peak between 1956 and 1965. According to Kufeld (1979), “…during the 1956-65 period when deer populations were very high and the heaviest harvests were achieved in an effort to reduce deer herds in an overpopulated range, vast acreages of deer range were being sprayed (27,112 acres) and chained (4,699) on the north half (of what is currently Game Management Unit 62), with perhaps detrimental effects to deer habitat, while large areas (8,642 acres) were being modified to improve conditions for deer on the south half through pinyon-juniper chaining.
Prior to European settlement, Native Americans frequently used fire to improve hunting conditions and remove undergrowth to facilitate movement. In a last act of defiance, the Utes set large fires on the Plateau before they were forced to leave in 1881 (Marshall 1981). After settlement, fires were suppressed to protect timber and property. Throughout most of their existence, the USFS and the BLM have had policies to actively suppress natural fires on public lands.
In the past 120 years the Plateau has been grazed, fenced, logged, sprayed, plowed, contoured, chained, seeded, mined, quarried, laced with an extensive network of roads, subdivided and developed, used for a wide variety of recreational activities, crossed by electrical transmission and pipe lines, invaded by exotic plants and altered by water diversions and developments. Some of these activities have been benign, some have been beneficial, and others have had negative effects on the overall health and sustainability of the natural systems of the Plateau ecosystem.