Report: Vail bighorn herd could be aided by controlled burns, pruning | VailDaily.com

Report: Vail bighorn herd could be aided by controlled burns, pruning

This photo, captured by a trail camera placed by consultant Rick Thompson, shows bighorn sheep on a parcel in East Vail that may be used for workforce housing.
VailBighornHerd-VDN-020819
By the numbers41: Colorado Parks and Wildlife estimate of the size of the East Vail bighorn sheep herd.50 to 55: Consultant Rick Thompson’s estimate of the herd’s size.7: Estimated number of lambs born to the herd in 2018.67 percent: Decline in the size of the herd since the late 1990s.Source: Rick Thompson.

VAIL — It will take a good bit of work, but Rick Thompson says it’s possible to expand and improve the winter range of the small herd of bighorn sheep in East Vail.

The status of that herd is going to be an important part of plans for possible development of workforce housing on a parcel on the north side of the East Vail Interstate 70 interchange. Vail-based Triumph Development has a deal with Vail Resorts to purchase and develop workforce housing on that site.

The original town zoning on the property would have allowed building several duplex units on the entire parcel. The town in 2017 approved a resort company request to rezone the property. That zoning now has the western portion — 5.4 acres — zoned for workforce housing. The remainder of the property is now in the town’s “natural area preservation” zone, one of the town’s most restrictive.

While the parcel is divided, the entire property is part of the winter range for the bighorn herd. Any development proposal will have to include provisions to preserve that herd.

Sheep and people, living together

Some residents and retired wildlife officers wonder if that’s possible. When the Vail Town Council approved the zoning proposal in October of 2017, council member Kim Langmaid said she believes any development on the site could doom the herd to extinction.

At the same hearing, retired wildlife officer Bill Andree agreed that development on the site could be a threat to the herd’s survival.

At Tuesday’s afternoon meeting of the council, longtime wildlife consultant Rick Thompson presented results of a months-long study of the herd.

That study is thick with facts, figures and history. Among the historic facts is that the U.S. Forest Service in the late 1990s proposed some prescribed burning in the area to bolster the wildlife habitat. That proposal was rejected when East Vail residents objected to having prescribed burns conducted that close to neighborhoods.

Thompson said some burning is needed to encourage new growth of forage for wildlife. Thompson said some of the brush in the area now has grown too tall for animals to graze on new-growth shoots.

Another impediment is fallen logs in what Thompson called a “jackstraw” fashion. That means the fallen logs are fallen in a criss-cross pattern that makes it difficult or impossible to move through.

Thompson said that some prescribed burning, pruning and fallen-log removal, on both the private parcel and surrounding public lands, could expand the winter range for bighorns and other wildlife.

Some of that work could begin this year, which could start to improve winter forage by next winter.

If construction is approved on the site, Thompson said that the two-year period would occur primarily in daylight hours. Bighorn sheep move around mostly at night.

Limiting contact

Council member Jen Mason asked how the herd would be impacted if workforce housing is on the site, since that would put people in the area at all hours.

Thompson said his proposal to Triumph includes a stand of aspen trees between any developed area and adjacent open space. He noted that initial plans also include a 15-foot rockfall berm along the back side of the parcel.

Thompson said he’s talked to Triumph’s planners about fencing in the property to keep people off the adjacent open space. Limiting internal parks could help minimize the presence of dogs in the area. Limiting building height could also cut down on bighorn noticing new human neighbors.

Thompson’s report was just that — detailing his study’s findings. There will be more discussion when the development plan is submitted. And, after a wildlife forum in January of 2018, another such forum has been set, tentatively scheduled for March 6 at Donovan Pavilion.

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