Mares Tail Canyon

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These canyons are deep, wild, and remote. I appreciate the fact that few people use this area. Every time I drive down the roads to access the canyons, I feel I am driving back in time to when there were many more wild places like Squaw and Papoose. The canyons should remain as they are now, preserving their solitude, magnificent wildlife habitat, and many archaeological sites.

Sandy Bielenberg, Durango

Wilderness Qualities
Mares Tail Canyon includes three major canyons -- Mares Tail, Squaw, and Papoose -- trending northeast to southwest as they cross the Colorado-Utah border. The canyons begin as rocky arroyos but rapidly cut into the Dakota Sandstone and Morrison Formation to form rugged, steep canyon walls of exposed rock outcrops, boulders, and talus slopes. These canyons are rich in archaeological resources. This region of Colorado and Utah contains one of the densest concentrations of Anasazi Indian sites, as many as 40 to 60 sites per square mile, and includes round towers, Hovenweep towers, pit houses, pueblos, cliff dwellings, lithic scatter, pottery shards, agricultural sites and a wide variety of pictographs and petroglyphs. The Colorado portion of the canyons comprises the western edge of the newly established Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, proclaimed by President Bill Clinton in June, 2000.

Mares Tail Canyon supports numerous species of wildlife, many of which have been displaced from the surrounding uplands due to agriculture and other development activities. Mammals include deer, mountain lion, black bear, as well as an abundance of other mammals common to the area. The diverse topography allows for a similar abundance of bird species including resident golden eagles and migratory bald eagles. Peregrine falcons may occasionally visit the area. Mares Tail Canyon also contains the most abundant and diverse reptile and amphibian population in Colorado, including many rare and localized species.

A wide variety of vegetation occurs in the area with pinyon-juniper woodlands dominating the canyon rims along with sagebrush. Rabbitbrush, Mormon tea, mountain mahogany, gambel oak, serviceberry, and cliffrose blanket the canyon slopes. Vegetation is thicker along the canyon floors with cactus and yucca; wildflowers such as Indian paintbrush, penstemon, yarrow, phlox and lupine; and riparian flora including rushes, sedges, cattails, willows, tamarisk, boxelder, and cottonwoods.

Opportunities for solitude and a wilderness recreation experience are outstanding due to the topographic and vegetative screening from the human imprints on surrounding lands. The potential for observation of the Anasazi heritage adds immeasurably to the experience. Rugged terrain offers challenging hiking, climbing, and backpacking. Hunting is a major use of the area. Camping sites are plentiful, both on the canyon rims and on the canyon floor.

Natural overlooks provide excellent vantage points for observation and photography. The combination of scenic, ecological and archaeological resources and the excellent opportunities for solitude make Mares Tail Canyon a unique addition to the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Resource Information
The Morrison and Dakota Sandstone Formations underlying Mares Tail Canyon have low potential for oil, gas, uranium, and coal. Deep formations in the vicinity have been drilled for carbon dioxide. There existing oil and gas leases in Mares Tail Canyon. The leases are located primarily in the northern end of the area. Due to the natural inaccessibility of the canyon floor and the relatively narrow nature of the area's boundary, slant drilling into formations underlying the area is possible from outside the wilderness boundaries, providing access to these resources while protecting the fragile ecology of the canyons themselves. Slant drilling has been used by several oil and gas operators in the area to avoid roads and their potential destruction of archaeological sites.

BLM may not issue rights-of-way across intervening federal lands to pre-FLPMA leases if such access would harm wilderness values. Development of the pre-FLPMA leases in Mares Tail Canyon, other than by slant drilling, is therefore by no means a foregone conclusion.

There has been past exploration for uranium, but BLM's records reveal no current mining claims within the WSA. There has been no production of uranium from the area due to the low grade of any deposits present. BLM has decided future leasing will only be with no-surface-occupancy stipulations to avoid destruction of the cultural treasures.

The entire area is closed to motorized vehicles in order to protect archeological sites.

Four grazing allotments cover portions of the area. Cattle use the area from April through February.

Water flows year-round in the drainages of Mares Tail Canyon. Numerous springs feed these flows, and the water quickly dissipates into the sandy soil downstream of the WSA. Only one private water right, for livestock watering, exists upstream of the WSA.

Boundary Issues
Citizens propose additions to the WSA boundaries in order to provide more protection for the narrow canyon systems. These include areas with minor human imprints which are returning to their natural condition. An addition of 119 acres in Colorado is in upper Papoose Canyon. Other additions, in Utah, include 1,020 acres of state lands at the southwest in Squaw Canyon and at the confluence of Squaw and Mares Tail Canyons. Another addition of 1,754 acres of BLM land would protect upper Mares Tail Canyon by closing an unused and eroding vehicle way.

These additions enhance significant natural values by including tributary canyons and the majority of the stream courses of Squaw and Papoose Canyons.

Approximately 4,730 acres of the unit is located in Colorado; the remainder is in Utah. The area includes essentially all the area identified by BLM as the Squaw/Papoose Canyons WSA.


mares tail
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mares tale cwp
Sunset glow on an exposed sandstone cliff face in the Mares Tale CWP. (John Fielder)


mares tale cwp
Autumn in the CWP.



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