Recent snowfall brings humans and wildlife closer together as herds of elk and deer return to the valley
While these seasonal movements solicit excitement from residents, local wildlife and land managers seek to limit interactions
Winter has arrived in full in Eagle County with the latest batch of snowstorms, and the change in scenery brings about changes for every living thing that calls the valley home.
Most notably, residents may have noticed a return of the local elk and mule deer populations moving into lower altitudes and onto the valley floor. Recently, residents have reported a return of local elk herds to Brush Creek Valley Ranch and Open Space as well as the Eagle Ranch Golf Course.
While these seasonal movements solicit excitement from residents, it brings about trepidation from local wildlife and land managers as they attempt to reduce interactions and incidents between humans and wildlife through various methods, including seasonal trail and open space closures as well as education.
“People really value the wildlife here. We get it, we totally understand it and if we can just remind folks that we do affect wildlife a lot,” said Peter Suneson, outreach and education specialist for Eagle County Open Space. “If you want to do best for wildlife at this time of year, you’re leaving them be, you’re really not bothering them whatsoever; no impact is the best kind of impact that we can have on wildlife.”
What are they doing here?
These movements — while a little late this year — are expected around this time of year as much of the wildlife moves to lower elevations for the same reasons humans seek out the higher ones: snowpack.
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“The changes in weather, average daily and overnight temperatures as well as snowfall — all equate to accessibility to certain forage requirements for these animals,” said Devin Duval, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife district wildlife manager in Eagle County.
Most mammals and animal species, Duval said, are driven by four needs: food, water, cover and space.
“As the snow starts flying and everything — and at higher elevations the snowpack starts to accumulate — there’s just fewer and fewer areas that are available that are going to provide the abundance of forage that these animals need to survive throughout the course of the winter,” he said.
So, in search of areas with more forage, these animals seek out lower elevations where there is more human population and development.
“You have an overlap of habitat types for both people and wildlife, and subsequently, you have conflicts that occur because of that,” Duval said.
This movement — and overlap between humans and wildlife — is expected to continue over the next several months until the animals begin to move back toward higher elevations as the snow recedes and spring settles in to the valley.
While the most abundant wildlife that humans will see as a result of these movements is mule deer and elk, the movement of these animals also brings their predators closer to human habitats. Specifically, Duval said, it brings large carnivores like mountain lions.
“Inevitably, this is the time of year that we see conflicts with mountain lions because all the food they’re reliant on has moved to lower elevations, that again in turn, overlaps and exists within the urban environment,” he said.
So far, this year, there have been some isolated sightings of mountain lions in the lower elevations in Eagle County, Duval said. These sightings are often in the early morning or later in the evening. Adding that within the last week or two, there has been an “increase in calls for service in terms of mountain lion conflicts.”
Minimizing human impact
As these inevitable movements bring humans and wildlife closer together, Duval and other local land and wildlife managers seek to educate the human faction on how best to behave and even recreate during this time of year.
“The vast majority of conflicts can be addressed by simple changes in human choices and behavior, and giving these animals plenty of space and due respect that they deserve,” Duval said.
Suneson added that the reason it’s important for humans to play their part in limiting interactions is that humans have agency in where and when they recreate and go outdoors.
“We can make choices, animals on the other hand, they don’t have the ability to make those choices,” Suneson said. “They’ve got four things they need; that’s what their life is revolving on right now. So, if there’s any way we can convince people to really chose to recreate with wildlife in mind, especially this time of year, that’s super important.”
On of the main ways that entities — including local municipalities, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the U.S. Forest Service — attempt to limit interactions and protect wildlife is through a number of seasonal trail and open space closures.
“You run into issues where there’s the expectation of unfettered access to some of these places and people do enjoy these things and sometimes there’s a tradeoff, but it’s for the benefit of the things that we all love,” Duval said. “Hopefully it’s a good year of compliance and adherence to these closures and hopefully we can minimize some of the issues we do see every year.”
Some of the most popular closure areas, Suneson said, include portions of the Everkrisp Trail, North Trail in Vail, the western portion of the Eagle River Preserve in Edwards, Brush Creek Valley Ranch and Open Space and more. For a full list of closures, as well as the dates of closures, visit V VMTA.org/seasonaltrailclosures.
As these agencies attempt to create distance between wildlife and humans with closures, Suneson and Duval also urged residents not to attempt to bring wildlife closer. Specifically, Duval said they often see residents leaving out selenium mineral licks, granular salt, hay or grain for animals. Doing so, however, does more harm than good.
“It’s counter intuitive, but these animals have historical knowledge passed on from generation to generation on how to navigate the environment, how to find available food sources,” he said. “In doing so, not only are you inviting the possibility of animals becoming habituated and expecting handouts from humans, but you have wildlife that is then going to follow the prey base.”
So if somebody thinks they’re doing favors for mule deer and is putting out feed, they inevitably will have a mountain lion issue on their hands down the road — it’s all connected,” he added.
In fact, many conflicts seen at this time of year are not just from humans, but from their canine best friends — especially when off leash.
“The canidae body shape just elicits negative responses almost unequivocally with animals,” Duval said. “They interpret it as being a predator and often sometimes these off-leash dogs will pursue them and that’s unnecessary caloric expenditure that may equate to that animal not surviving the winter.”
In addition to limiting conflict, Duval added it’s important to limit human interactions with specifically elk and deer. This time of year is when the majority of the cows and does are pregnant. Carrying their young to term requires a large energetic requirement from the female species, which is not aided in any way by humans adding stress to their environments, nor by the starvation winter brings.
“Throughout the winter, they’re going to be at various stages of starvation and the months preceding the winter and of course the severity of the winter is going to dictate caloric intake and likelihood of those animals making it through the winter,” Duval said, adding that this is why it’s important for humans to keep their distance and minimize stress, because not doing so may drive the animals to expend calories they can’t afford to lose.
“People are definitely eliciting an impact, regardless of if they see those animals or not,” he said.
A growing challenge
With changes in climate and the growth in human population in Eagle County, limiting these interactions is more vital than ever.
Over the past decade or so, there has been a steady decline in the elk population in the valley.
“Back in the early 2000s, we were sitting at a pretty sizable herd and it’s been a downward trajectory, a pretty precipitous decline over the last decade, where within the last three to four years, we’ve been at probably a 20-30 year low in our population,” Duval said.
Right now the herd is at the point where it is no longer self-sustaining or even growing. And while Colorado Parks and Wildlife has done its part to manage this decline through limiting hunting and tag allocation, officials are also utilizing partnerships with other land agencies to implement these trail closures and limit human interaction — all with the hopes of reversing the trends they’re seeing.
Suneson noted that in the last two years or so, since the beginning of the pandemic, an influx of humans to the area have also created less than desirable impacts on local wildlife.
“COVID pushed a lot of people to one, completely relocate to our beautiful areas in Colorado, but then it also pushed a lot of people outdoors,” Suneson said. “So we’re seeing new users that might not have the knowledge base or the resources to make those good decisions. There are also just many, many more users out there, which creates a cumulative impact that increases exponentially.”
However, even with an influx of outdoor users and environmental impacts to wildlife, these local entitles are working hard to make sure that both humans and wildlife get what they seek from Eagle County’s outdoor environment.
“People should appreciate wildlife,” Suneson said. “We’re very lucky to live where we live, we’re very lucky to have the wildlife and the habitat around us and that’s only going to persist if we make good choices and if we continue to use our agency to promote the survival of these animals.”