Town of Vail’s hired biologists on Booth Heights plan: Find another location

Planning and Environmental Commission will meet again on Monday at 1 p.m. to discuss development plan

A photo illustration of the Booth Heights housing project. The Vail Town Council in October upheld an Aug. 26 approval by the Vail Planning and Environmental Commission.
Special to the Daily

VAIL — A team of wildlife biologists hired by the town of Vail has suggested how to best mitigate the impact of housing planned for East Vail, and the top recommendation is to find another location for the development.

The Booth Heights plan proposes 73 residential units be built by Triumph Development on a parcel of land near the East Vail exit in an area that is a winter grazing range for bighorn sheep.

The sheep herd numbered more than 100 in the 1990s and is down to about 40 sheep, according to a study undertaken during the winter of 2017-18 by wildlife biologist Rick Thompson of Western Ecosystems Inc. Thompson detected 93 sheep on and in the immediate vicinity of the 5.4-acre East Vail development area during the study. Thompson conducted the study for Triumph, who presented it to the town’s Planning and Environmental Commission as part of a wildlife mitigation plan for the development.

After seeing the Western Ecosystems report, the town of Vail hired wildlife biologists Gene Byrne, Rick Kahn and Melanie Woolever to prepare a second opinion on wildlife mitigation efforts. That report was published on August 5.

The Planning and Environmental Commission will meet again on Monday at 1 p.m. in the Vail Town Council chambers to discuss the Booth Heights development plan.

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Burying the lede

In a staff memo prepared for Monday’s meeting, a summary of the town-hired biologists recommendations fails to include their top suggestion — not to build the Booth Heights development as proposed.

“Our collective view is that finding another location for this development would offer the best mitigation for this sheep herd,” the report states in the third paragraph.

“Based upon our collective experience, most wildlife mitigation efforts do not provide the intended mitigation result,” the report continues.

Understanding that the development may happen anyway, the biologists then offer mitigation solutions, which are summarized in the memo.

Included in the many solutions offered are a conservation easement on the adjacent 17.9-acre parcel, a mitigation fund for bighorn sheep protection at a minimum of $50,000 per year, and a habitat enhancement project for areas off-site which could benefit the bighorn sheep herd. Triumph has included those mitigation efforts in a new mitigation plan, according to the staff memo, and has offered to contribute $50,000 in seed money for the off-site wildlife mitigation efforts.

Burn, baby, burn

The town-hired team of biologists also suggest the town take another look at the U.S. Forest Service’s 1998 habitat plan for the area, which proposes that migration corridors are cut and maintained nearby, and prescribed burns should be used to fertilize the habitat.

Among the items of the highest importance in the biologists’ off-site mitigation efforts is to “investigate methodologies to allow for prescribed fire” and to “burn or cut, stack and burn to open up aspen woodlands.”

Western Ecosystems examined the 1998 plan as part of their work for Triumph, as well. In their report, Western Ecosystems notes that in 1998, the Forest Service predicted that without the implementation of the habitat plan, the East Vail sheep herd would decrease due to infested aspen stands dying and leaving downed timber in the sheep habitat which would restrict movement to winter foraging areas and escape terrain.

“The enhancement project was approved, but not implemented because of community opposition to the use of fire,” Western Ecosystems states in the report. “Although there have been two small-scale habitat enhancement projects below the Booth Creek cliffs and on the East Vail parcel, the overall sheep winter range has deteriorated as predicted.”

Here’s the full report from the biologists hired by the town of Vail:

Booth Heights – Biologist Roundtable Final Recommendation Summary by Nate Peterson on Scribd

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