Physical and biological geography play critical roles in the
diversity and density of wildlife species found in a given
area. The Durango region of Southwestern Colorado is no
exception, offering an assortment of extreme and diverse
environments for different animals to live in. From the
majestic mountain peaks, to crystal clear streams, down to
the raging rivers, the steep canyons, and the arid desert
landscapes - this is an area well known for its scenic
Seven of the eight ecosystems in Colorado can be found
here in Durango. The complexity and diversity of the
landscape results having several different ecosystems right
at your finger tips. An ecosystem can be defined as "an
ecological unit, a subdivision of the landscape, a
geographic area that is relatively homogeneous and
reasonably distinct from adjacent areas (Marr, 1967)." The
7 major ecosystems seen here in this part of Southwestern
Semidesert Shrubland (Elevation: 4,000 - 8,000 ft) - is characterized with low moisture year round and is
primarily found at the lower elevations around the Durango region. Head South toward New Mexico on Highway 550
and you will find yourself surrounded on all sides by the Semidesert Shrublands giving off a grayish green color
created from an abundance of sagebrush, one of the most dominant plants found in this particular ecosystem.
Greasewood, shadscale, four-winged saltbush, rabbitbrush, and balsamroot are also trade mark plants in this habitat.
A few animals commonly found in these areas include rabbits, mice, lizards, rattle snakes, and ground squirrels.
Pinon-Juniper Woodlands (Elevation: 5,500-8,000 ft) - have open stands of wooded areas in warm drained
soils. Much of the land directly surrounding the Southern end of Durango itself falls into this ecosystem in areas,
which is usually found above the semidesert shrublands and below the montane shrublands. Dominant plants found
in this region include: pinion pine, Utah juniper, red cedar, blue grama, June-grass, Indian ricegrass, prickly pear,
fescues, and blue grass. Some of the common animals found inhabiting these areas include big-eared bats,
cottontails, rock squirrels, mice, skunks, gray foxes, mule deer and even mountain lions!
Montane Shrublands (Elevation: 5,500-8,500 ft) - are generally found at higher elevations than the pinion-
juniper woodlands and just below the montane forests in rocky and well drained soils and less extreme temperatures
than the neighboring ecosystems. Much of the land found within the Telegraph trail system, just Southeast of Fort
Lewis College falls into this category. Dominant plants for this system include: gambel oak, mountain-mahogany,
serviceberry, wild rose, skunkbrush, smooth sumac, rabbitbrush, choke cherry, blue grama, and western wheat-grass.
Many of the animals found at lower and higher elevations will utilize this ecosystem as well. Some common ones to
look for are bats, cottontails, chipmunks, horny toads, tarantulas, rock squirrels, brush mice, coyotes, spotted skunks,
ringtails, black bears, and mule deer.
Montane Forests (5,600-9000 ft) - are made of coniferous forest of very large fur and ponderosa pine trees,
characterized by very large wood trees. Montane Forests are bordered with the lower elevation montane shrublands
and the higher elevation subalpine forests. The lower trailhead of the Hermosa Creek Trail, just North of Durango is a
prime example of this ecosystem. Some of the most dominant plants found here are Ponderosa pines, Douglas fir,
quaking aspen, limber pine, Colorado blue spruce, lodgepole pine, wax currant, mountain maple, kinnikinnik, and
fescue. Animals that commonly inhabit this region include woodpeckers, the hoary bat, cottontails, chipmunk, Abert's
squirrels, porcupines, martens, elk, moose, and of course black bears!
Subalpine Forests (9,000-11,400 ft) - this is the highest forested ecosystem in Colorado with steep slopes
covered with dense amounts of coniferous trees and shallow soils. In the winter months these regions see a very high
amount of snow fall and very low temperatures. Both Wolf Creek and Durango Mountain Ski Resort sit at the lower
end (elevation wise) of this type of ecosystem. Dominant plants for this region include the Engelmann spruce,
subalpine fir, quaking aspen, bristlecone pine, limber pine, lodgepole pine, Jacob's ladder, myrtle blueberry, and
broom huckleberry. Many of the animals that live in this region have developed habits to protect them from the harsh
winter temperatures and high snow fall such as hibernation, migration, and so on. A few of the animals seen here are
snowshoe hares, yellow-bellied marmots, weasels, shrews, golden-mantled ground squirrels, red-back voles,
wolverines, lynx, and elk.
Alpine Tundra (11,4000 ft and higher) - is the highest ecosystem found Colorado, (elevation wise) it is above
timberline, meaning that large trees cannot grow here because the elevation is just too high! These areas have a
barren look and feel to them because it is very harsh climate with extremely low winter temperatures, high winds, and
very short growing seasons. From Durango, take a look westward towards Silver Mountain for a prime example of
this high-mountain ecosystem! Plants that tend to be dominant here are alpine avens, arctic willow, kobresia, sedges,
alpine sandwort, American bistort, and old-man-of-the-mountain. The abundance of animals is even rarer than the
abundance of plant life. Animals that are seen here include: chipmunks, yellow-bellied marmots, mice, voles, shrews,
pikas, elk, and even the occasional mountain goat!
Riparian Systems (all elevation up to 11,000 ft) - are characterized as being in or directly adjacent to bodies of
water whether lakes, streams, rivers or marshy areas. Generally found in valley-bottom corridors. The corridors of
the Animas River offer a vast amount of riparian habitats right here in Durango. A little further to the North the trail to
Spud Lake also offers ample views of the riparian ecosystems. Plants that often dominate these areas include
cottonwoods, willow, cat-tail, great bulrush, salt-grass, river birch, water sedge, horsetail, and rushes. Such habitat
often houses animals such as beavers, otters, muskrats, mink, western jumping mice, frogs, salamanders, kingfishers,
snakes and much more! (Fitzgerald, 1994)
The diversity of species that can be found around the Durango region of Colorado is incredible and largely due to
the complexity of the landscape itself allowing for several different types of ecosystems to all be located very closely
together. Travel for a while, then travel a little further and you are bound to find yourself in different environments
which are in turn inhabited by different plants and animals. Enjoy your vast amount of options and opportunities for
Below are lists of some species found in this area broken down into categories of mammals, reptiles/amphibians,
birds, fish, insects, and plants. A few of the species listed actually link to new pages that give a brief profile on them.