Natural Features and Ecosystems
Mesa Verde (Spanish for green table), occupies just over 52,000 acres of the Colorado Plateau. The correct geological term for the area is cuesta. Cuestas are similar to mesas, but instead of being relatively flat, they gently dip in one direction. Mesa Verde is inclined slightly to the south at about a seven degree angle and has been highly dissected by wind and water erosion into a series of canyons and “mesas.” Elevations range from about 6,000 feet in the canyon bottoms near the southern park boundary to 8,572 feet at Park Point, about ten miles north.
Mesa Verde's climate is semi-arid, with an average annual precipitation of 18.4 inches. The park lies in the transition zone between the arid scrublands to the south and the forested montane environment of the Rocky Mountains to the north. It supports four major plant communities: The shrub-steppe community is found in the lowest elevations and includes sagebrush valleys. As elevation increases, the communities change from shrub-steppe, to pinyon-juniper forests, to mountain shrub communities, and finally to areas of Douglas-fir and Ponderosa pine. Each environment has characteristics that favor certain plants while limiting others. For instance, prickly pear cactus can be found on dry, sunny, rocky soils, whereas Douglas-fir is found in shaded, moist areas with deeper soils. Numerous seep springs created from the juncture of Cliff House sandstone and Menefee shale provide microclimatic conditions for more moisture loving plant species such as mosses and ferns.
Animals, Plants, and Species ListHabitats in Mesa Verde support a great diversity of wildlife including resident and migratory mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fishes, and invertebrates. Because of Mesa Verde’s protected status, many plant and animal species that have disappeared or are rarely seen in the region still exist at the park, including breeding pairs of peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) and Mexican spotted owl (Strix occidentalis lucida). Many species of rare plants survive on protected park lands. Some of these rare plants, such as the Cliff Palace milkvetch (Astragalus deterior), are endemic to Mesa Verde and are found nowhere else.
As parks strive to maintain and, in many cases, restore natural processes and ecosystems inside their boundaries, accomplishment of these mandated goals can be confounded by outside activities and actions. Parks do not exist in vacuums, but are connected to the larger landscape that surrounds them. All parks today face threats from invasions of nonnative species, pollution from near and far, climate change, and incompatible uses of resources in and around parks. In spite of its geographic isolation, Mesa Verde also contends with environmental issues.
Last updated: October 7, 2020