Allerlei - Echo Canyon & the Stream Orchid

stream orchid

Echo Canyon is located in western Colorado. It's intermittent drainage flows generally northwards and eventually joins another intermittent stream in No Thoroughfare Canyon. The subject of this webpage is a 60 meter section, of the 800 meter long segment of Echo Canyon in the Colorado National Monument, that is home to the endemic Stream Orchid, Epipactis gigantea (left photo).

The following excerpt is from: Epipactis gigantea Dougl. ex Hook.(stream orchid):A Technical Conservation Assessment, prepared for the USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Region, Species Conservation Project, March 20, 2006, by Joe Rocchio, Maggie March, and David G. Anderson. Colorado Natural Heritage Program, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO:

"Epipactis gigantea (stream orchid) is a sensitive species in the Rocky Mountain Region (Region 2) of the USDA Forest Service; it is not designated sensitive by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in Colorado or Wyoming. NatureServe ranks this species as globally vulnerable to apparently globally secure (G3G4). The state heritage ranks in Region 2 range from critically imperiled (S1) in Wyoming and South Dakota to imperiled (S2) in Colorado.

The global distribution of Epipactis gigantea extends from southern British Columbia through the western United States, reaching inland as far as Texas, with one collection from central Mexico. Throughout its wide range, it occurs infrequently but can be locally abundant. Epipactis gigantea occupies a variety of habitats; because it requires a constant supply of water, suitable habitats include seeps, springs, and perennial streams...

... Estimates of abundance of these occurrences vary from a few to thousands of plants. These estimates represent the number of aboveground stems (ramets) as opposed to number of individual plants. NatureServe estimates that the actual number of genets (genetic individuals) is low, but there are many thousands of ramets of Epipactis gigantea across its range.

stream orchid

Observations of known occurrences suggest several potential threats to Epipactis gigantea. In order of greatest to least concern, these threats include recreation, exotic species invasion, water development, domestic livestock grazing, urban development, timber harvest, and utility line construction/maintenance. Not all threats are equally valid for every occurrence, and some threats may interact and influence each other. For example, recreation can affect hydrology, introduce non-native species, or result in habitat loss (e.g., hot spring development). In many localities, it is difficult to consider these threats in isolation from one another, both temporally and spatially. Specific impacts to E. gigantea and its habitat should not be considered in isolation from the cumulative impacts to an area.

Maintaining an intact hydrological regime is the most significant conservation element for Epipactis gigantea. Other conservation elements include exotic species invasion, habitat loss, disturbance intensity, and altered nutrient cycles. Site-scale conservation efforts to protect known occurrences are likely to be effective. However, landscape- scale threats, such as groundwater withdrawal and stream flow alteration, can complicate these efforts since they may occur off-site. Further inventory work is a priority for Epipactis gigantea and is likely to identify other occurrences, especially on public lands managed by the BLM in Colorado. Research is needed to investigate the population biology and autecology of E. gigantea so that conservation efforts on its behalf can be most effective."

Here is the link to the full paper:  Orchid Assessment PDF Download


My Echo Canyon orchid research is summarized below. It was never intended to be a statistically relevant research paper. It began as a simple curiosity about how many orchids were growing there. Then the cattle came and I decided that I had better keep tabs on things in hopes of preserving the orchids and their habitat. Later, I noticed that the geomorphology was clearly and rapidly changing so I kept up with the orchid count. Data collection was inconsistent because my interest waxed and waned and because I had a real job that conflicted with orchid research.

graph of orchid decline

Orchid trend in Echo Canyon. Left - orchid stem numbers. Bottom - year data collected or estimated. Green - before grazing (1993) and during the 1.5 years of grazing (1994 to May 1995). Red - decline probably due to grazing impacts (direct loss of stems and introduction of weeds). Blue - decline probably due to canyon/stream changes. Missing bar = no data for that year. Purple - a comeback?

The graph above indicates the effect of grazing and stream changes on stem count. The primary loss of stems following grazing was in an area I call the alcove. Grazing introduced weeds that deprived orchids of light and growing space. Also, the principle types of invasives - yellow clover, alfalfa, and grasses, could have de-watered the soil so much that orchids could no longer thrive. The alcove orchids have been fairly well protected from recent stream changes and might still be present in large numbers if the area had not been grazed. Not sure about the data from 2003 and 2004 - another count later in the season might have produced higher stem counts.

1993 (mid-May) - 700 stems; first year of my data
1994 (June 02) - 700 stems; cattle present; almost all orchids chewed down or trampled
1995 (April 23) - 700 stems; cattle present; no specific data: estimate from my notes ("orchids OK but some chewed on"")
1996 - 200 stems; data from the USDA Forest Service paper mentioned above and confirmed with the field botonist
1997 - no data; single note did not include any count
1998 (June 08) - 100 stems; count in alcove (60) plus estimate from other areas (40); invasives abundant in alcove
1999 - no data
2000 - no data
2001 (June 05) - 140 stems; none in alcove
2002 - no data
2003 (April 30) - 7 stems; none in alcove; habitat changing; early count
2004 (May 26) - 5 stems
2005 - no data
2006 (June 6) - 158 stems; just a few orchids in the alcove
2007 (June 19) - 50 stems; habitat changes over the past few years
2008 - no data
2009 (April 12) - 29 stems including 2 in alcove; early count
2010 - 2013 - no data
2014 (August 06) - 27 stems including 2 in alcove; late count
2015 (June 27) - 280 stems including 160 in alcove
2016 (July 24) - 200 stems including 10 in alcove
2017 (June 12) - 220 stems including 30 in alcove

1994 cowpie 2006 alcove

Photos: 1994 (left) - ungrazed orchid next to cow pie in the alcove.       2006 (right) - alcove.

1993 seep 2000 seep

Photos: 1993 (left) - orchids growing by a seep along a crack in the bare rock. Note the soil deposition by 2009 (right). Use the little right angle rock projection in the upper left corner of the photos to compare sedimentation. Orchids (8 tiny shoots) are still growing in the same location that was once 50 inches above the creek bed, only now they have to sprout through a few inches of sand and gravel!


May 6: Cattle tracks seen at orchid site. I brought this to the Park Service's attention.

June 3: Orchids near the spring were OK a few weeks ago. Now they have been grazed down to only a few inches so there won't be any flowers there this year. Only 6 orchids blooming in all areas. A Park Service ranger said he would check on things.

September 18: Maximum height of orchids this year was 4 inches (regrowth after grazing).


April 23: Abundant cattle tracks. So far the orchids are OK but some have been grazed.

May 1: Fence at CNM boundary is up! No cattle at orchid site.


May 4: Orchids 4"-6" tall. Fence has been destroyed by hikers so that they would not have to climb over it. No cattle. Two people are tent camping immediately downstream from the orchids.


March 17: Fence is useless. Highly vandalized. No orchids up yet. No cattle.


June 8: Colorado National Monument has put up trail signs to Echo Canyon. No cattle evident. There are about 60 orchids in the alcove upstream from the spring, a few years ago there were many hundreds of orchids there. Only a few orchids are tall enough to bloom. They are being choked out by yellow clover, alfalfa, and grasses, that were brought in by the cattle. There are still orchids a little downstream along the creek bank and at the seep.


April 26: 50 orchids over a large area and another 50 in a cluster along the creek bank. There are NO orchids at the alcove. None at all. They went from many hundreds to zero at the alcove in 8 years! Very thick grass at the old orchid locations.

June 5: Total of 140 orchids in Echo Canyon, 75 in bloom. They are scattered along the creek bank and there are no large concentrations of them anymore. Some cattails have moved into the the lower creek section. Not as much yellow clover and alfalfa as in the previous years after the cattle introduced them.


June 6: 158 orchids in total. The orchids are scattered at seeps or along the east bank north of the alcove. There are 24 orchids south of the alcove which I had never seen before - these are scattered on each bank or near the cliff. There are no orchids at the alcove except for a few at its stream bank and a few at the very far northern edge. The majority of orchids are not blooming and many are quite small. Only saw, and destroyed, 3 yellow clover and 1 alfalfa plants, each less than 8 inches tall. Lots of clematis and thick grass.

June 23: The orchids seem to be mostly done blooming. I did check more on the stream deposition from 1993 to 2006. I took some new photos and measured distances on the cliff wall and estimated that the deposition was about 30 - 40+ inches near the big seep! There is less deposition upstream but it still has affected the environs - a perennial spring (upstream from the seep) which used to flow down a short rocky slope before meeting with the stream now lies directly in the stream itself.


June 19: Stream bed is a few inches higher than last year. More cattails, sedges, willows, and narrow leaf cottonwoods growing in the canyon. Only counted 50 orchids in all areas. A few are still blooming.


April 12: It is a bit early but I found 8 orchid stems at the seep, or what is left of the seep. The rock crack that carried the water is now below the level of the creek bed where the orchids grow. There are 19 orchid sprouts at a 24" x 20" x 7" thick clump of soil clinging to the rock face by grass roots. I need to see if these orchids are the same as some in previous years. At the alcove there are 2 orchid sprouts at the edge of the rock wall. No orchids were found farther upstream of the alcove, and none below the seep population. Doesn't look good for the Echo Canyon orchids.


August 06: It is a bit late in the season. Very difficult to find orchids as vegetation is matted down from flood waters. Hopefully I missed a lot of orchids and can find them next year. Equisetum now extremely dense.


June 27: Joy of joys! Largest stem count since 1995! Equisetum is extremely dense in the alcove but the grasses and clematis are very decreased. 160 orchid stems are mostly located in the rear portion of the alcove. Still far short of the 400 stems that were in the alcove before 1996. Downstream of the alcove there are about 100 stems including one concentration of 50 against the cliff. The remainder are hiding in the vegetation along the west bank. Upstream of the alcove are 20 orchids which I first discovered many years ago but thought that they had been extirpated. Orchids range from late blooming to seed setting.


July 24: The alcove took a big hit this year because the equisetum is very dense there. A little downstream, against the cliff, are now 150 stems (50 last year). Upstream of the alcove are 12 stems. There are also a few more here and there for a total of 200 stems this year.


June 12: Thick equistem and dense Maianthemum stellatum in the alcove. A little downstream, against the cliff, are now 150 stems (150 last year). Upstream of the alcove are 10 stems. There are also a few more here and there for a total of 220 stems this year.

Discussion (updated 2014)

In 1993 there were 700 orchids in the Echo Canyon habitat. That number was reduced to 100 by 1998 (Note: When I refer to a number of orchid plants it is really to the number of stems I counted. I made no studies to separate seed produced plants from ramet plants). What happened to all the missing plants? Well, they weren't exactly missing - they were dead. There have been many stream bank changes over the years and I would make the assumption that those environmental changes were most important in the decline of orchids along the stream bank.

There is a different story at the alcove. There was something like 400 orchids on the flat terrain at the alcove in 1993. The distance from the stream bank protected the alcove orchid colony from being affected by stream bank fluctuations. Their numbers were impacted however by cattle grazing in each of two consecutive Springs. The loss of orchids came perhaps not so much directly from grazing (though it did reduce flowering) as from the long term effects of invasive species introduction. There were incredible amounts of alfalfa, yellow clover, and grasses introduced by the cattle. These invaders choked off the orchids and dried out their habitat. The orchids died and have not been able to recover in the alcove. It is encouraging that there was almost no alfalfa or yellow clover found in 2006. I suppose that I have pulled out my share of those invaders but there are probably other reasons for their disappearance (perhaps through Colorado National Monument efforts). It is sad that this situation ever happened - all because some bozo decided that he wanted to be a Colorado cowboy and because the Colorado National Monument dragged their feet on building a fence. Maybe the orchids can stage a comeback but I am not sure how successful that can be without human intervention.

As noted earlier on this page, the Stream Orchid is not in any immediate danger of becoming extinct in America. It is locally abundant at places throughout the western United States and British Columbia. But in my 'backyard' it is in real danger! I wish I could have enlisted more help and been more stubborn with the Park Service when I first noticed the cattle invasion. If I had, then perhaps the Echo Canyon orchids would be in a healthier state of affairs today.

If you have read this far you must have some interest in the orchids. Here is how I approach the site. I step on rocks and avoid leaving footprints. I avoid stepping in the stream. I never take guests unless they care about the welfare of the Echo Canyon habitat. I do not collect orchids or move them from where they are found.

The Colorado National Monument has signs leading to Echo Canyon and, as of June 2006, an REI site lists Echo Canyon as a great hike for kids. So, this webpage - good, bad, or of no consequence? Considering that cattle and natural habitat destruction were responsible for most of the orchid decline I hope that this site will not lead to further loss. With any luck more people will encourage the Colorado National Monument to protect this valuable resource.

More information:
Orchid photos
Photo timeline of seep area