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Aspen-area elk herd numbers are strong, health is not

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Aspen Times fileThe health of the local elk population, including the animals that can be seen along McLain Flats Road at various times of the year, were the focus of a discussion by Pitkin County commissioners on Tuesday.
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ASPEN – Prescribed burns and closing off areas to wintertime recreation are among the potentially unpopular steps that would help improve the health of the elk herd in Pitkin County, a wildlife official told county commissioners Tuesday.

The local elk population is larger than what wildlife officials believe area habitat can support, and herd health isn’t optimal, judging from its low reproduction rate, according to Kevin Wright, district wildlife manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

Poor habitat conditions in local elk winter range, coupled with human activity in those areas, are factors that affect the herd’s health, Wright said.



“I think we have a strong elk population, but do we have a healthy elk population? I would say no,” he said.

Commissioners asked Wright to provide an update on the health of the local herd, as officials’ land-use decisions can impact big-game habitat. They also expressed an interest in discussing what can be done to improve conditions for the animals.



“Well, let’s talk about what we can do,” said Commissioner Jack Hatfield after Wright suggested the Rio Grande Trail along Lower River Road, just upvalley from Old Snowmass, ought to be closed to winter recreation. The trail has become a popular cross-country skiing route, particularly since it became part of the upper valley’s system of groomed nordic trails.

That part of the trail, through the Dart property, is adjacent to meadows that used to attract a lot of elk during the winter, Wright said.

Though that piece of the trail is closed to dogs, people “blow off the restriction,” he added.



Light Hill and the Crown in the midvalley, both under the Bureau of Land Management’s purview, would be closed to winter recreation, as well, if Wright had his druthers. Both areas provide key winter habitat, he said.

“We’ve got people out on snowshoes in our winter range, cross-country skiing out there with dogs – that has a definite impact on wildlife,” Wright said.

Similarly, the Government Trail between the Buttermilk and Snowmass ski areas is closed in the spring until late June, during elk calving season, but some individuals ignore the closure, according to Wright.

A gate will be constructed on the Snowmass side, and one may be installed on the West Buttermilk side, as well, to make the seasonal closure unmistakable, he said. A physical barrier on the Rio Grande Trail that keeps people off a sensitive stretch in the midvalley, between Rock Bottom Ranch and Catherine Store Road, works well, Wright noted. That segment of the Rio Grande Trail is closed during the winter and spring.

Wright also advocated management of winter range habitat to spur new, young shrub and oak brush growth. Prescribed burns are the easiest way to accomplish the task, he said.

Swaths of Light Hill were cleared and mulched mechanically to achieve the same result, but that effort cost close to $200,000 to improve some 500 acres. Funds aren’t available to make that option broadly available and it can’t be done on steep slopes anyway, Wright said.

“Habitat conditions, especially our winter range conditions, are terrible,” he said. “I can’t put it any more bluntly than that.”

The Roaring Fork Valley’s so-called Avalanche elk herd numbers an estimated 4,200 animals, according to Wright. That herd occupies an area that stretches from Glenwood Springs to the top of Independence Pass and McClure Pass, on the south side of Highway 82. The target population – a number that hasn’t been updated in years – is 3,300.

“We’re trying to bring the population down to what we believe the habitat can really support,” Wright said.

Though the number of elk exceeds the DOW’s population objective for the area, the birth rate – about 40 calves per 100 cows last year – is low. A number in the high 40s to low 50s would be good, Wright said.

“To me, it’s an indication that something’s askew. There’s something not right,” he said.

Ironically, the taking of more cows by hunters could actually lead to a rise in birth rates and a younger, more vibrant herd, according to Wright. Hunters, however, tend to not venture deep into wilderness in order to take a cow, and there’s a lot of wilderness surrounding the valley.

The DOW also groups elk in a unit north of Highway 82, in an area extending up the Fryingpan Valley and as far as Eagle-Vail on the south side of Interstate 70. That herd totals an estimated 7,200 animals; the target population, based on what officials believe the habitat can support, is 5,100, Wright said.

Concerns aside, Wright complimented the county for a land-use code that incorporates wildlife restrictions and for having an open space program that helps preserve habitat.

“Without the open space, a lot of those areas would be houses,” he said.

Commissioner Michael Owsley called for county and DOW cooperation on trail issues, enforcement, development and burn policies, and potential study of the local elk herd and impacts on it.

“I would really like to be proactive about it,” Owsley said. “I don’t want to live in a county that isn’t replete with the full range of wildlife.”

janet@aspentimes.com


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