State tries to help deer and elk in Snowmass
OLD SNOWMASS, Colorado ” A longtime state wildlife officer in the Aspen district says a habitat improvement project on Light Hill is being unjustly targeted by critics who don’t understand the situation the valley’s deer and elk face.
Kevin Wright of the Colorado Division of Wildlife said he has no regrets about the clearing of brush within a 375-acre patch of Light Hill, a dominating hump that stretches from Old Snowmass to Basalt High School. The project, which was undertaken in June, will spur new growth that will benefit deer, elk, birds and every other species that makes the hill its home, he said.
“This is not permanent loss of habitat,” Wright said.
Basalt environmentalists Chris Lane and Randy Brimm took the wildlife agency to task over the project. Among their complaints was trimming. They said clearing the brush during the last three weeks of June killed baby birds. They accused the wildlife division of managing lands for the benefit of deer and elk at the expense of other critters.
Wright angrily responded to the criticism in a recent interview. He said the habitat improvement project was directed primarily at deer and elk, but that all species will benefit. He said deer and elk need help and are worthy of the attention.
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“Everybody thinks deer and elk are doing just fine here. They’re not,” Wright said.
The annual birth rate for elk should be 48 to 52 calves per 100 cows, Wright said. Instead, the number of calves being born hovers in the “low to mid-30s.”
Wright suspects that part of the problem is lack of habitat and the declining condition of some of the best habitat. Light Hill is one of five critical habitat and severe winter range areas on public lands in the Roaring Fork Valley. Deer and elk have munched the oak brush, serviceberry and sage for years. It’s created a condition called “clubbing” in which tough, old, gnarled branches protrude, but there is limited new growth. In addition, decades without the benefits of fire on Light Hill have created thick brush that is all the same age and size. The vegetation created an often impenetrable barrier.
Wright said he has wanted to do a project like this since he became the Aspen district wildlife manager for the DOW nine years ago. The veteran wildlife officer has worked in the Roaring Fork Valley for 24 years. The money finally came through this year, via a mix of public and private funds.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oversees the public lands on Light Hill. It teamed with the wildlife division to run a piece of heavy equipment called a tracked mulcher on a relatively flat area at the top of the mountain. The projected targeted less than one-tenth of Light Hill, or about 376 of roughly 3,800 acres. Of the 376 acres in the project area, vegetation was removed from about 263 acres, Wright said. The brush was left untouched in drainages and at regular intervals to create a mosaic effect. It wasn’t a clear cut in the sense that all brush was removed. Areas of sage brush were avoided entirely.
Nevertheless, the project created a visual impact. It dominates the view of hikers on a popular trail across the valley on the Arbaney-Kittle Trail and can be seen at some spots from the floor of midvalley. Some people who hike or mountain bike on Light Hill were also taken aback.
Brimm and Lane mobilized to question the work and they said they will try to prevent the project from expanding. Wright insisted that the wildlife benefits are indisputable and he plans to proceed with a second phase. (The BLM obtained the approval for the project under federal environmental guidelines, although critics question if the process was thorough enough.)
The second phase features hand-cutting of pinion and juniper trees on 62 acres this year; about 100 acres will be burned next spring; and oak and serviceberry will be mulched on another 180 acres next summer.
The new growth on the treated area will provide better browsing and grazing on Light Hill for deer and elk, and habitat will be restored for birds and small mammals, Wright said.
Wright said he was stung by the criticism because he feels it unfairly questioned the wildlife division’s integrity. The heavy equipment moved onto the hill in early June because it had to wait for the terrain to dry after a winter with above-average snowfall. The work needed to be done before the usual monsoon pattern developed so vegetation would start growing this year, Wright said.
He acknowledged that there was “probably” some effect on nesting birds. Brimm claimed thousands of baby birds were killed by the work; Wright claims the number is much less. Neither side presented any data to support their claims.