The Improbable Comeback of River Otter in Northwest Colorado

Photo: CPW
Photo: Colorado Parks & Wildlife

Once upon a time, river otters could be found in nearly every significant river drainage throughout Colorado.  But habitat loss and degradation, overtrapping, and water quality issues decimated otter populations, culminating in 1906 when the last known native river otter in the state was killed on a stretch of the Yampa River.  From that point on, otters were locally extinct in a state where they once thrived.

Decades later, the elusive mammals are making a remarkable comeback in the Intermountain West.  In the late 1980s, a number of river otters were successfully reintroduced into the Green River just outside of Dinosaur National Monument near the Utah-Colorado border.  Many of them branched off and slowly found their way east, where some of the otters returned to their historic range in Yampa River basin.  The Yampa River – one of the West’s last relatively free-flowing water bodies – has an abundant supply of fish which the otters rely on for sustenance.

Click play on the video below (courtesy: National Geographic) to see river otters in action.

While otter sightings along the Yampa are still relatively rare (they are hard to spot even with a trained eye), the solitary semi-aquatic creatures have been documented on at least two YVLT-conserved properties in Routt County: Lake Catamount, south of Steamboat Springs and the Carpenter Ranch, located just east of Hayden.  Many more of YVLT’s conservation easements preserve potential habitat for otter along the Yampa River, helping to ensure that otters have the resources they need to secure a foothold in this region and achieve a self-sustaining population.  Their miraculous recovery in this area – along with that of bald eagles, Peregrine falcons and bighorn sheep – is attributable in part to private land conservation efforts along key river corridors.

With river otters on the rebound in Colorado, it is possible the species will be removed from the “State Threatened” list and downgraded to a “Species of State Special Concern” by Colorado Parks and Wildlife experts in the future. 

YVLT is thrilled to have these wonderful creatures back in Northwest Colorado!

“I love this Valley – there’s no doubt about it!”

-Elaine Gay-

Green Creek Ranch

“Elaine’s Place” by Chula Beauregard

“There are still many birds in the valley to fill the air with song in the spring. There are frogs croaking in the sloughs and ponds. The hills and mountains are relatively unscathed from the big building boom that has left other mountain areas covered with huge houses and scars from ski runs and over development. There is still the roaring of streams in the springtime as they dash down the mountainside into the rivers below. There remains a quietness and sense of peace at being away from the noise and blare of traffic.”

“How wonderful it would be if we could just keep what we have left, as it is, for all the world and future generations to see.”

Elaine Gay, from “How Pleasant is the Valley” (1995)

Elaine’s love for Pleasant Valley led her to conserve 1,000 acres of her beloved Green Creek Ranch.

Colorado Conservation

Card CROP Elaine Gay

Colorado Conservation

Tribute to a Grand Lady

Echoing from ridge to ridge and to the river below, the heartfelt words of Elaine ring throughout this incredible Valley.

Matriarch, Mentor, Conservationist, Friend, Leader and Rancher.

Her home was her hearth and her kitchen her heart. And from her kitchen and from deep within her heart she proved that pies prevail over powder.

Along with stories of watering cabbages before a first date to leading the charge to keep Pleasant Valley pleasant – Elaine also helped to open the eyes of the community to the impacts a new city and resort development of 10,000 would have on the land, its people, Green Creek Ranch and the Valley that she so loved.

Elaine – you will remain an inspiration for land conservation and an inspiration to the people dedicated to protecting the Yampa Valley and Northwest Colorado.

From all of your friends that stood with you in the face of seemingly irreversible changes – Elaine – in your name and with your heart we vow to continue in your footsteps to do our best to protect this incredible Valley.

And more importantly –

we love you Elaine –

and always will –

there’s no doubt about it.

In loving memory to Elaine Gay:

Elaine was my mentor and my inspiration to create Yampa Valley Land Trust for our Valley and Northwest Colorado. We will miss you, Elaine.


YVLT Acquires Conservation Easement on Yampa River Property: Iron Springs Ranch

Yampa River on Iron Springs RanchThe Yampa River Meandering Through Iron Springs Ranch

Yampa Valley Land Trust Conserves Two Miles of the Yampa River on “Iron Springs Ranch”

Yampa Valley Land Trust, Gates Family Foundation and Routt County’s Purchase of Development Rights (“PDR”) Program made a splash this year by conserving over two miles of the Yampa River on Iron Springs Ranch. This property’s unique location and ecological values are distinguishing: the 640-acre working ranch is situated just upstream from Stagecoach Reservoir State Park, safeguarding a wildlife stronghold in an ecologically-significant section of Routt County.

The new project adds to a growing YVLT “conservation corridor” in the Stagecoach vicinity that is aimed at landscape-scale land conservation, leveraging other nearby conservation projects to preserve the area’s scenic vistas, agricultural values, and prime wildlife habitat. The Yampa River is truly the lifeblood of our community and is consistently recognized as one of the most hydrologically and biologically intact watersheds remaining in the West. At only 250 miles long, every mile of preservation along its riparian corridor represents a victory for land conservation in Northwest Colorado.

Routt County’s voter-approved Purchase of Development Rights Program provided the funding that allowed this important conservation project to move forward, in addition to critical financial support the Gates Family Foundation and YVLT’s generous donors. Conservation of Iron Springs Ranch not only preserves the ecological values found on this parcel, but also its rich history: it has been in agricultural production for over 70 years. Four generations of the Stetson clan have worked on the family ranch since Frank Stetson’s father first acquired the land in the 1940s. With a conservation easement on the ranch, the proper framework is now in place to keep the land in agricultural production forever.

Iron Springs Ranch is highly visible along the well-traveled Routt County Road 14 corridor, which serves as the gateway to Stagecoach State Park, Sarvis Creek Wildlife Area, Sarvis Creek Wilderness Trailhead, Routt National Forest and the developing Stagecoach residential community. As it adjoins 736 acres of BLM land, the ranch provides an important wildlife migration corridor and serves as a visual buffer to the wealth of public lands in the vicinity.

Thanks to its location along the Yampa River, Iron Springs Ranch provides habitat for a wide range of river-dwelling mammals and amphibians including otters, great blue herons, sandhill cranes, and a multitude of other species. Brush-covered portions of the ranch and its irrigated meadows provide habitat for bald eagles, mule deer, elk, moose, coyotes, bears, mountain lions, and a variety of raptors and songbirds.

By protecting working farms and ranches from future development, Yampa Valley Land Trust, Routt County PDR and Gates Family Foundation are safeguarding open space values and scenic vistas that are of a high priority to the local community. This important conservation easement project marks an accomplishment for Routt County residents with benefits for its animal inhabitants as well.

With its latest conservation project finalized, YVLT has conserved over 54,300 acres in 73 conservation easements across Northwest Colorado – protecting the best of what this remarkable area has to offer.


  • Established in 1992, Yampa Valley Land Trust works with willing landowners to conserve the agricultural, natural, scenic and historic landscapes located in Routt, Rio Blanco, Jackson and Moffat Counties.       To date, much of YVLT’s work has focused on the Upper Yampa River Basin in Routt County and the Upper White River Basin in Rio Blanco County. Over the past twenty years and prior, Yampa Valley Land Trust has been the leader in land conservation for the area and has protected over 54,300 acres in 73 conservation easements.       Additionally, YVLT has worked to conserve an additional 5,000 acres proximate to the City of Steamboat Springs and on Emerald Mountain and Howelsen Hill that now provides public access to open space and trails. All of YVLT’s projects ensure that the beautiful working landscapes and prime ecological features along with outstanding recreational projects will continue to be an inspiring part of our lives and the lives of generations to follow. Through cash donations and contributions, supporters of Yampa Valley Land Trust helped to make these projects and all Yampa Valley Land Trust conservation easement projects possible. For more information please call Susan Dorsey at the Yampa Valley Land Trust, 970-879-7240.
  • The Routt County Purchase of Development Rights Program has, to date, completed 50 conservation projects totaling 36,734 acres and currently has 5 projects in process totaling an additional 3,880 acres. For more information please call Helena Taylor at Routt County, 970-879-0108.
  • The Gates Family Foundation makes philanthropic investments statewide that contribute to the quality of life in Colorado, create opportunities for youth, and support stewardship of this extraordinary place, particularly the state’s natural inheritance. At the end of 2014, the Foundation invested more than $241 million across Colorado towards these ends. In carrying out its mission, the Foundation strives to maintain a long‐term perspective and focus on the challenges and opportunities that will have the greatest impact over time on the people, communities and resources of the state.

Historic Preservation at YVLT’s Rehder Ranch Nature Preserve: “Bank Barn” Rehabilitated!

The Rehder Ranch “Bank Barn” sits in the foreground; the Main House is visible in the distance.


YVLT’s 250-acre Rehder Ranch Nature Preserve is a wildlife stronghold (*updated with photos from 2015*) – but it’s also filled with cultural and historical significance!

What began as a pioneer homestead for the Rehder family at the beginning of the 20th century transformed over time into a viable working ranch with permanent buildings, thanks to Henry Rehder’s hard-work, resourcefulness and classic Routt County ingenuity.

The 1920s-era Rehder Ranch “Bank Barn” is a rare example of barn architecture in the Yampa River Basin.  The Colorado State Historical Fund and National Trust for Historic Preservation agreed, awarding YVLT historic preservation grants to stabilize and rehabilitate this unique structure, as well as prepare a Historic Structure Assessment for all historic structures on the property.






Wondering why it’s called a “bank barn?” 

Wikipedia explains: “A bank barn or banked barn is a style of barn noted for its accessibility, at ground level, on two separate levels. Often built into the side of a hill, or bank, both the upper and the lower floors area could be accessed from ground level, one area at the top of the hill and the other at the bottom. The second level of a bank barn also could be accessed from a ramp if a hill was not available.”

The loft – now a caretaker’s unit – was used to store hay, while the lower level housed livestock.  This layout allowed easier access to the hay bales.

The Bank Barn also drew the interest of students at the University of Denver, who prepared a Historic American Building Survey for the Rehder Ranch; their work is now archived in the Library of Congress!

Click the HABS drawings to enlarge.


Thank you to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Colorado State Historical Fund for your contributions to this historic preservation project!