Eagle County officials concerned by wildlife population declines

A bull elk rests in an Eagle County meadow.
Photo courtesy Rick Spitzer

Attend the meeting

The Eagle County Open Space Department will host a community presentation and public comment session on the draft management plan for Hardscrabble Ranch from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 19. The meeting will take place in the Garden Level Classroom of the Eagle County Building, located at 500 Broadway in Eagle.

Following an overview, community members will be able to break into smaller groups to ask questions about specific areas of the draft management plan, including agricultural management, habitat management, public access, programming and recreation. These smaller groups are designed to encourage attendees to delve deeper into a particular area or areas of interest and to provide an opportunity to ask questions and provide input.

The draft management plan will also be available at from Wednesday, Sept. 19, through Wednesday, Oct. 10, to allow the public to view the plan and comment online. Contact Eagle County Open Space Manager Diane Mauriello at 970-328-8698 for more information.

EAGLE — Dealing with issues related to population growth — everything from housing to roads to crime — is a routine task for the Eagle County commissioners.

But there’s one group of county residents who aren’t experiencing population growth. In fact, there’s been an alarming population decline of the native wildlife of Eagle County.

Last week, the county commissioners sat down with representatives from Colorado Parks and Wildlife to discuss the drop in local elk and deer population figures and hash out how humans can address the issue.

Craig Wescoatt, wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, painted a dire picture of current conditions.

The current elk count in Eagle County is down 50 percent from numbers recorded in 2003, Wescoatt said. During the past 20 years alone, local elk figures have dropped 40 percent.

Support Local Journalism

Wescoatt noted there isn’t a single factor that has resulted in the drop — nothing like a catastrophic fire or a devastating disease outbreak. Wescoatt also added that during the past decade, there hasn’t been a rash of large land developments that cut into wildlife habitat. What has happened, however, is more and more human encroachment.

“What we have seen is an increase in dispersed recreation on federal lands,” Wescoatt said.

Just because they don’t run …

Wescoatt doesn’t believe the average Eagle County resident or visitor who ventures out into public lands and comes across a deer or elk intends to stress out the animal. However, he said, people often fail to understand their mere presence is enough to cause harm.

For instance, Wescoatt explained that when a deer is alerted to a human presence, the animal’s heart rate quickens and its body temperature increases. The deer will halt foraging as it senses a possible threat. All the human sees is a deer looking up, but Wescoatt noted the animal has expended energy stores it can’t spare during the winter. What’s more, when it stops eating, that’s a problem, because during the winter, it is already a challenge for the animal to take in enough nourishment to stay healthy.

“Every time someone snowshoes or skis by and the deer picks up its head, it is bad for the deer,” Wescoatt said.

Elk, on the other hand, run away from a threat. That’s a more obvious signal that the animal is distressed and expending energy, he said.

Bear and Lions

Wescoatt also reported that while deer and elk numbers are dropping, local black bear and mountain lion numbers are more stable.

On the positive side, Wescoatt said bear sightings in populated areas are down.

“We have had a good berry crop this year, so the bears are staying where they should be,” he said.

Wescoatt said Colorado Parks and Wildlife is receiving more mountain lion reports now than in years past, but it is unclear if the population has increased or if dispersed recreation has brought more humans into contact with the animals.

Hardscrabble Ranch

At the same time that human actions are causing issues for wildlife, Wescoatt noted that surveys show Eagle County residents rank wildlife preservation as an important quality of life issue.

“We do get a lot of letters (about wildlife issues),” Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry said. “People are concerned.”

So is the county, the commissioners noted. Wildlife concerns are one of the issues that are driving the management plan for Hardscrabble Ranch, a 1,540-acre property recently added to the county’s open space program. Formerly a part of the Adam’s Rib Ranch private holding, the Hardscrabble Ranch property represents new access options to the federal lands south of the Brush Creek Valley. That’s great news for recreationalists, but it also has potential to be a large human encroachment problem for wildlife habitat.

“Sometimes there are competing interests (on public lands),” Wescoatt said. “We have to manage to balance those.”

There are various management practices Eagle County is contemplating for Hardscrabble Ranch, which will be discussed when the county hosts a community presentation for its draft management plan. That meeting is slated for Wednesday, Sept. 19, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. in the Garden Level Classroom of the Eagle County Administration Building.

Wildlife officials hailed the county’s efforts to include Colorado Parks and Wildlife in the Hardscrabble Ranch planning, noting that often habitat issues aren’t addressed during land-planning efforts. As a result, wildlife officials find themselves objecting to plans rather than helping to develop them.

“Right now it feels like we are the objectionists,” said J.T. Romantzke, Colorado Parks and Wildlife northwest region director.

Support Local Journalism