Trust Our Land: Wildlife are one of land’s most important beneficiaries (column) | VailDaily.com

Trust Our Land: Wildlife are one of land’s most important beneficiaries (column)

Jessica Foulis
Trust Our Land

This mule deer was spotted at West Avon Preserve, permanently conserved by the Eagle Valley Land Trust in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, Eagle County, town of Avon, the Vail Valley Mountain Bike Association and others in 2013.

When land is conserved, we all benefit. Our lives are made richer and our community thrives when land in Eagle County is forever protected. But those who benefit perhaps most from land conservation are the ones whose homes we are protecting: our wildlife.

With December quickly approaching, winter is almost underway and animals have been on the move now for weeks. Elk are mostly looking for a place to bed down and conserve energy, constantly calculating the balance of energy they have stored up and the calories they are using, while mule deer, who are not as large as elk and therefore cannot store enough energy for the winter, are looking for winter forage. Both are actively moving away from deep snow and people.

One other unfortunate fact we know about elk and mule deer in our area is that populations are declining and have been for years. According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, in 1980, there were 26,000 mule deer on the south side of Interstate 70 from Vail to Aspen, and now there are only about 16,000. Similarly, we've seen a decrease in our local elk population by about two-thirds in this same area.

• Why the decrease? Habitat destruction and disturbance are the main culprits of population decrease among mule deer and elk. Their loss of summer and winter habitat, as well as corridors to move around, is taking a toll. For elk and deer, surviving winter is all about energy conservation. Moving, or being startled, requires energy.

Even if a deer or elk is looking at you and not running away, its stress levels become elevated and it is making the decision to stand its ground or take flight. Moving unnecessarily can mean it doesn't have enough energy to make it through the winter. Similarly, females mate in the fall and are pregnant throughout the winter; moving unnecessarily can impact the fetus and/or milk production, which impacts survival rates.

• Why should we care? One of the reasons that many of us love living here is because we love to see wildlife, and we want them to thrive. But there are additional reasons why we should be concerned for their well-being. For one, the decrease in elk population means hunting licenses have been reduced by 75 percent for elk in areas near Minturn and south of I-70. This has a recreational, as well as an economic, impact on our community.

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What's more, when wildlife suffers, our ecosystem suffers. Every species serves a role and we depend on an intact ecosystem for things such as clean air and water.

• What can we do? All of us here at Eagle Valley Land Trust are grateful to Eagle County for organizing the Safe Passages for Wildlife project. This project is bringing together stakeholders from all over Eagle County to discuss important wildlife corridors that need protection and/or improvement. This will help protect wildlife as they move from summer to winter habitats and also people from wildlife-vehicle collisions.

In the meantime, you can help our wildlife by making yourself aware of, and observing, winter wildlife closures. Many trails close for the winter to protect important winter habitat. We join Eagle County in thanking you for observing these closures and keeping your dogs away from wildlife. Running away from a human or dog can mean the difference of not surviving the winter.

Properties under conservation by the Land Trust that observe winter trail closures include Eagle River Preserve, West Avon Preserve and Abrams Creek. We encourage you to visit Eagle County Open Space and Colorado Parks and Wildlife's websites for a complete list of winter trail closures.

Thank you for your role in respecting and protecting our wildlife populations and the land on which they live, so that we can all enjoy these magnificent creatures for generations to come.

Jessica Foulis is the stewardship and outreach manager for the Eagle Valley Land Trust.