Vail bighorn herd will affect plans for new public works department facilities
Rams tend to use the area on and around Vail's public works department facility
- New facilities for bus parking and maintenance.
- Possibly a large array of solar energy collectors.
- Upgraded electrical service to charge electric buses.
- Employee housing.
VAIL — The precarious future of the town’s bighorn sheep herd is likely to affect a plan for rebuilding the town’s public works facility.
That facility, now decades old, sits on Elkhorn Road on the north side of Interstate 70. When the facility is rebuilt — probably in 2021 — plans include expanding the parking and shop areas, upgrading electrical service to accommodate electric buses, building an array of solar panels and, perhaps, adding workforce housing.
The work will start on the north side of the property with a large retaining wall.
That wall was approved Monday by the Vail Planning and Environmental Commission. But other plan details are essentially on hold until more information is available about how bighorn sheep use the area.
To get more information, the town has asked for an opinion from Colorado Parks and Wildlife and hired wildlife biologist Rick Kahn.
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Kahn was one of the biologists consulted about the Booth Heights workforce housing project. That site, just north of the I-70 interchange at East Vail, is about 2 miles east of the public works site.
Kahn said the area around the Booth Heights site is used mostly by ewes and lambs. The public works site is used by rams.
Rams don’t use the site around the public works facility every winter — they have used it perhaps three or four times in the past decade, Kahn said.
There’s a lot unknown
Plans for the solar array, rockfall berm and retaining wall would take a small amount of habitat from the rams, Kahn said. And, he added, planting non-native plants might be a help in the early spring since those plants tend to green up sooner than native vegetation.
But, Kahn added, it’s unclear whether or not non-native plants are actually helpful to the animals.
While commission members ultimately approved the plan for the retaining wall and rockfall berm, members wanted to see more information about the sheep before taking action on other elements of the plan.
Commission member Brian Gillette said he’d like to see further study of the herd, using radio collars to track the animals’ movement.
That study would be expensive — as much as $500,000, by Kahn’s estimate.
Gillette also encouraged the Vail Town Council to appropriate money over a decade for habitat enhancement.
That could be tricky, too, since much of the animals’ habitat is on land managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Much of that land includes designated wilderness area. That complicates efforts to enhance the animals’ habitat. That’s particularly true when it comes to prescribed burning. That burning will clear off overgrown vegetation and allow new growth.
Kristen Bertuglia, Vail environmental sustainability manager, said meetings with Forest Service officials haven’t resulted in much action.
The biggest issue is the agency’s policy of no prescribed burning in wilderness areas.
Working with the Forest Service also requires federal paperwork, specifically, complying with the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires various levels of study for most actions on federally managed land.
East Vail resident Larry Stewart said the delay in the construction schedule for the new public works building is an opportunity to do better work for the sheep.
“You have time to have more observations about what’s going on up there and be better informed when it comes time to approve (the building),” Stewart said.
Steward urged commission members to take a cautious approach to work at the site.
“There’s not going to be a do-over if we get it wrong,” he said.
And getting it wrong could be very bad news for the sheep.
Kahn said the herd, which has been in the area as long as records have been kept, “is not doing particularly well,” adding there are a number of threats to the herd’s continued existence.
Resident Tom Vucich called for the town to take a broad view of wildlife habitats in and around town. Vucich added that it’s time for the town to put money and time into understanding more about the herd.
That money will have to come from the Vail Town Council. There’s about $170,000 budgeted for wildlife study and mitigation in the town’s 2020 budget. And, Bertuglia added, she expects to have a more thorough report on mitigation efforts complete in the next couple of months.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at email@example.com and 970-748-2930.