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Summer plans at Snowmass raise concerns about elk herd

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colorado – The Aspen Skiing Co. is preparing to turn the Elk Camp pod of Snowmass Ski Area into a summer activity hub at a time when the population of an elk herd that depends heavily on adjacent Burnt Mountain is plummeting.

The Skico is trying to ensure its activities don’t negatively affect the elk herd. It has vowed to delay activity on upper Elk Camp until after elk calving season ends on Burnt Mountain. In addition, it is working with the Colorado Division of Wildlife and U.S. Forest Service on elk-friendly regulations that its employees will enforce during summers.

Nevertheless, the potential exists for stress at a time when the elk herd cannot absorb anymore.

“There is concern of the low calf production,” said Randy Hampton, spokesman for the Division of Wildlife.

There was a calf-to-cow ratio of 30 to 100 in 2005, meaning that 30 calves were being born per 100 cows in that herd, Hampton said. By 2008, that ratio had dropped to 21 calves born per 100 cows, according to wildlife division research.

The dropping ratio is “probably an indication of loss of habitat,” Hampton said. The wildlife division alerted the Forest Service in 2005 that it was concerned that summer use of the Snowmass Elk Camp area, the far eastern section of the ski area, would affect the viability of Burnt Mountain for summer habitat for elk. Hampton said the loss of habitat is occurring in numerous places, not any specific area.

Wildlife officials have explained in the pass that there can be an indirect loss of habitat. In other words, activity in one site can have broader, off-site impacts on adjacent lands.

Plummeting elk population

The elk that use Burnt Mountain are technically known as the Avalanche Creek herd. The habitat stretches from the Crystal River Valley to Interstate 70 in the Glenwood Springs area and east to Aspen, generally on the south side of Highway 82.

The population of the herd has dropped an estimated 46 percent since 1995, according to the wildlife division. The population fell from about 7,500 in 1995 to 5,500 by 2005. Three years later, the number was estimated at 4,023, Hampton said.

Because of the loss of habitat, the wildlife division says the Avalanche Creek herd must be culled even more. Additional hunting permits will be issued to reduce the herd to 3,300 animals.

“We believe that’s what the habitat can support,” he said.

Extending that reasoning, if there is habitat loss in places like Burnt Mountain, numbers will have to be reduced even further.

Hampton said the wildlife division has “many of the same concerns we raised in 2005” about the Skico’s plan. It expressed those concerns during the Forest Service’s review of the Skico plan five years ago.

“Overall we’re pleased the Skico is trying to address some of these concerns,” he said.

The biggest issues for the wildlife division are prohibiting access to Burnt Mountain during calving season, generally prior to June 20; requiring dogs to be on leashes; vigorously enforcing closures and restrictions; and providing bear-proof containers on the mountain. The Skico has agreed to all conditions.

Skico will provide enforcement

The Skico envisions turning the Elk Camp area into something similar to the Sundeck area at the top of Aspen Mountain during summers. There would be a climbing wall, disc golf, lunch at Cafe Suzanne, mountain biking, hiking and fishing. The Elk Camp Gondola will be operated out of the base area, then riders could purchase rides on the Elk Camp quad chairlift after June 20.

Forest Service approval of the plan in 2006 allows the Skico to build two trails that go west, away from Burnt Mountain and toward the developed part of the ski area, according to Jim Stark, winter sports administrator for the Aspen Ranger District. Summer visitors will be able to ride a bike or hike on the existing Elk Camp road. One new trail will be dedicated to hikers and another dedicated to bikers.

The Skico, wildlife division and Forest Service all want to alleviate pressure on upper Burnt Mountain during summers, so the Skico will patrol the boundary between Elk Camp and Burnt Mountain.

“You won’t be able to hike onto Burnt Mountain if you take the [Elk Camp] lift up,” Stark said. “If you walk up, you can.”

The Forest Service and town of Snowmass Village already enact rules to keep people out of lower Burnt Mountain during calving season. Routes such as the popular Government Trail are closed from May 18 to June 20.

The debate over the Skico’s increased activity at Elk Camp hasn’t captured the attention of high-profile environmental groups such as Wilderness Workshop. The nonprofit organization is heading a campaign to add as much as 400,000 acres of Wilderness in western Colorado, in large part over concerns over loss of lower-elevation wildlife habitat.

Wilderness Workshop Executive Director Sloan Shoemaker said the organization generally supports the concept of concentrating recreation activity in developed areas. Wilderness Workshop hasn’t studied the potential effects of Elk Camp summer activity on elk on Burnt Mountain.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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