Declining wildlife populations part of Vail Open Lands Plan discussion | VailDaily.com

Declining wildlife populations part of Vail Open Lands Plan discussion

This elk, spotted near Red Cliff, is stuck in the snow and weakened from winter. Harsh conditions, as well as human interference with the animals' habitat, has caused big declines in herd numbers near Minturn and across the region.

VAIL — Humans have played a big part in the decline of local wildlife herds. Humans will have to play a role in re-building them.

The Vail Planning and Environmental Commission on Monday, Feb. 26, heard an overview of the state of local wildlife from a pair of officers from Colorado Parks and Wildlife. After that presentation, commission members asked what the town can do.

Wildlife herds in Eagle County have been on a steady decline for the past 15 years or so.

Bill Andree, who manages the upper valley's wildlife for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, told commission members that elk herd between roughly Vail Pass and Wolcott have declined from about 3,500 animals in 2002 to fewer than 1,200 animals in 2016.

While there are few concrete answers for the decline, there are plenty of evidence-backed theories. Most of those theories track straight back to human interference.

Andree told commission members that in addition to the impact of homes, roads and trails, humans these days are out at all hours of the day and night. And, he added, if an elk — or deer or bighorn sheep — spots a human, that animal has been interrupted in its main job of survival.

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The problem is particularly acute in the winter, Andree said.

"Deer and elk are on a starvation diet from about Thanksgiving (through the winter)," Andree said. "The best way for them to survive is not to move… If you make deer and elk get up, they're burning huge amounts of energy."

Poor nutrition

Substandard nutrition affects more than individual animals, Andree said. Poor nutrition and weak mothers make it harder for calves to survive.

In addition to trying to get through the winter, animals under stress during calving season are also unlikely to produce healthy offspring.

Commission member Pam Hopkins asked Andree if human interference is a year 'round problem.

Andree said the human interference affects the animal most of the year — perhaps nine or 10 months out of every 12.

Rebuild local herds

Commission member Brian Stockmar asked Andree what the town can do to help preserve or rebuild local herds.

Education is a big part of the answer, Andree said. But policy decisions need to be made, too.

While limiting new housing is difficult, Andree said there are other options.

"It's really time to say not to have a trail here, or leave this (parcel) for the animals," he said. Humans, he added, have the option of recreating somewhere that won't affect wildlife.

Vail Environmental Sustainability Manager Kristen Bertuglia told commission members that some changes to trails have been made in the draft update of the open lands plan.

That may include the Vail Trail. A proposal in 2016 to upgrade that trail was strongly opposed by a number of residents.

Other options include helping with habitat restoration or enhancement projects.

Asked how much habitat enhancement efforts around Vail might cost, Andree said it could be as little as $10,000 to $15,000 per year.

But Colorado Parks and Wildlife officer Craig Wescoatt, whose territory includes the area around Eagle, said education can also be a big help.

Community forums are "really eye-opening," Wescoatt said, adding that if hikers, mountain bikers and others had information, there could be better compliance with seasonal trail closures.

One local group is already working with the U.S. Forest Service to improve trails in the area.

Bill Hoblitzell of the Vail Valley Mountain Bike Association told commission members that his group already has plans in the works, including posting ambassadors at trailheads to remind people of seasonal closures. The group is also working on gates for certain trailheads.

Hopkins said the need for action is urgent.

"We're losing our wildlife," she said. "We can't share everything with all the animals. Pretty soon we'll just have mountain lions because they can eat our rubbish and our dogs."

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, smiller@vaildaily.com or @scottnmiller.