Impact ‘understated,’ wildlife manager says
MINTURN ” A developer’s initial ideas for keeping his private ski resort from harming elk and other wildlife on and around Battle Mountain haven’t excited the Colorado Division of Wildlife.
The Ginn Company’s study, done by wildlife biologist Eric Petterson of Rocky Mountain Ecological Services, focuses on elk, but covers other animals including lynx, black bears, peregrine falcons and others. Despite the many pages dedicated to elk, the Colorado Division of Wildlife disagrees with some of the study’s preliminary findings.
“The impact to elk for the entire project is significantly understated,” Perry Will, a Division of Wildlife wildlife manager, wrote in a letter to Minturn.
Elk, according to the study, inhabit two areas of Ginn’s property: the north portion, near the dry Bolts Lake, and Battle Mountain to the east.
Elk move west into the Bolts Lake area between the southern-most tip of the U.S. Highway 24 switchback and then north to the junction of Two Elk Creek and the Eagle River, according to the study. The elk cross back and forth in this corridor during the winter to find food.
Generally 15 to 50 elk winter in the area. Twenty-five elk were spotted in the area this winter, Petterson said.
Once elk cross onto Ginn’s property, they generally move onto the ridgeline that separates piles of mine waste called “tailings,” Petterson said. Several tailings piles exist on Ginn’s property, including the old and consolidated piles and Rex Flats.
Ginn may build a wildlife bridge over Highway 24 north of where it climbs to the first switchback to Red Cliff. An overpass would give elk another route to reach winter foraging areas, Petterson said.
“No one is forcing (Ginn) to do a wildlife overpass, but if it’s the right thing to do, let’s do it,” Petterson said.
But Will said the overpass needs more study. “The proposed highway crossing and fencing for elk migration has merit but will need much greater review,” Will said.
The consolidated tailings pile, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site, is now considered unsuitable for elk. Building a golf course ” with roughs, water features and south-facing slopes ” could create new elk habitat, Petterson’s study says.
Planting native grasses and other plants should allow a “seamless transition from off the Superfund site to on,” but the goal is neither to attract nor repel elk, Petterson said.
The Division of Wildlife is not in total agreement the golf course will add elk territory. “Generally golf courses are not considered mitigation,” Will said.
“The golf course could indeed increase the available forage for elk over the existing tailings piles,” he said. “However, the flat areas of the golf course will be covered with snow during the critical periods of winter making the forage unavailable.”
At other Eagle Valley golf courses, elk forage on the courses at night but become trapped without cover during the day and spend the hours milling around nervously, Will said.
Loss of elk habitat near Bolts Lake will be minimal because development is centered on Rex Flats, which is considered uninhabitable for elk, according to Petterson’s study.
Increased human activity surrounding the so-called “Icon Building” at Rex Flats means 10 acres of land in the surrounding area that elk will use less. More roads and traffic will reduce elks’ ability to move from one area to another, Petterson said.
“Elk move around quite a bit in the Minturn valley depending on snowfall and (snow) melt,” Petterson said.
Beginning in October each year, deep snowfalls and hunters push elk onto Ginn’s property from Shrine Pass and higher elevations of Turkey Creek. The elks’ movements across the property can be erratic, Petterson said.
The elk sometimes winter in two areas, one east of abandoned mining town at Gilman and one north of Red Cliff and Turkey Creek, according to the study. Elk move between these areas, although roads and a cluster of houses are proposed to be built between the areas.
Elk usually stick to south-facing slopes in winter, and just a couple homes would be adjacent to these south slopes, Petterson said.
Petterson said the elk likely will use the ski runs to the north or rugged territory to get around.
To ensure elk eat on the ski runs, Petterson suggests native grasses and herbs be planted instead of foreign plants the elk don’t like. Planting these native species is expensive and therefore most ski resorts plant cheaper foreign species, he said.
Over-grazing could be reduced by allowing hunting on the property so elk don’t seek refuge from hunters pursuing them on other areas on Ginn’s property, Petterson said.
Restrictions on early-morning construction while elk eat are also being considered, Petterson said.
“I don’t think anyone has ever done that other than a home site or two,” Petterson said.
This is the first large-scale project Petterson has worked on, but he said he is impressed with the Ginn Company’s attention to wildlife. “The Ginn Company has been quite upfront minimizing impacts to wildlife,” he said.
Staff Writer J.K. Perry can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 14622 or email@example.com.