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Critters using controversial trail

Scott CondonVail, CO Colorado
Wildlife biologist Jonathon Lowsky sets up a motion-triggered camera
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ASPEN – Mike Hermes reached into the snow to collect evidence of a deadly ambush that occurred on a closed section of the Rio Grande Trail in the Roaring Fork Valley.Hermes, the trails director for the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, produced a lone red feather from a clump of black plumage. The feathers were plucked from a red-ringed blackbird that was probably captured by a hawk, said Jonathon Lowsky, a wildlife biologist who is consulting for the transportation authority.As Lowsky described how the hawk likely perched in a tree and prepared its meal, it conjured images of someone patiently peeling the shell of a hard-boiled egg. The life-and-death struggle was one of several examples that wildlife abounds in a two-mile section of the Rio Grande Trail, which opened in late October to a fair amount of criticism from the environmental community. Critics said it would drive wildlife out of the old railroad corridor they had taken over in the decades since trains stopped passing by.The transportation authority responded by hiring Lowsky to devise a wildlife management plan, in which he recommended closing the trail to humans from Dec. 1 until May 1 and to ban dogs year-round.

Wildlife advocate Jim Duke, who lives across the Roaring Fork River from the trail, has repeatedly said the plan doesn’t go far enough. At a minimum, he wants the closure to start Nov. 1.Duke has asserted the presence of the trail has spooked deer, elk and other animals away from the area.The evidence on a tour with Hermes and Lowsky on Thursday suggested otherwise. Lowsky pointed out numerous tracks of deer and elk following the trail. In a one-mile stretch, animals had pounded six major crossings into the snow on the trail. In some cases, they crashed through the wood-pole fence off to one side of the trail.Across the river, a few hundred yards from the trail, great blue herons could be seen building massive nests in cottonwood trees.Lowsky noted coyote tracks, scat from an unidentifiable source and signs of other small animals. In previous outings, he said he’s seen tracks of fox, long-tailed weasels, skunk and lots of small voles.He swapped the memory cards Thursday of two motion-triggered cameras that were erected roughly six weeks ago. One had captured 44 images, the other 34.

One camera caught an image of a bobcat hightailing it down the trail. Pictures of deer and elk were plentiful.There were no pictures of unsuspecting humans. “There is not a single trespasser, which is great,” Lowsky said. “This has essentially extended the wildlife preserve because nobody is allowed back here whereas in the past folks that lived in this corridor use to walk here all the time.”

Duke agreed more animals have been in the area, but, “there’s wildlife there but nowhere near what it used to be. It’s a small fraction of what it previously was.”Eagles have been particularly scarce, he said. He saw six eagles in all of December, when he was laid up because of shoulder surgery – he used to see six in a single morning, he said.Duke also believes wildlife patterns were disrupted in late fall. The trail was still open in November after some deer and elk were driven down from the high country by early snows. He thinks some animals were frightened by humans from crossing the trail. Wildlife will be affected by the trail to a greater degree during summer months, Lowsky said. Songbirds like the blue-gray gnat catcher, Virginia’s warbler and plumbeous vireo “are probably going to adjust their home ranges” to distance themselves from the trail, he said. But in his opinion, no populations of any animals will be threatened by the trail.”If a trail is going to actively and significantly impact wildlife habitat in such a way as to disrupt the populations, then I’m going to fight it,” Lowsky said. “All I can say is this very first winter of the trail, the species that people seem most concerned about – the deer and the elk – are using the trail tremendously.”


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