Vail considers options to further preserve bighorn sheep, wildlife habitat |

Vail considers options to further preserve bighorn sheep, wildlife habitat

Town Council opinions differ on level of protection required on certain northern parcels

The town of Vail is exploring what steps it can take to further protect bighorn sheep — and other wildlife — habitat on its land north of I-70.
Rick Spitzer/Courtesy photo, Vail Daily archive

The town of Vail is considering its options to up protections on town-owned land that currently provides habitat for bighorn sheep and other wildlife. However, the Vail Town Council was split on the appropriate level of protection required before ultimately referring some parcels to review by its Open Space Board of Trustees.

At its Tuesday, March 21 meeting, the Town Council reviewed the designations of parcels that are town-owned, undeveloped, north of Interstate 70, and relevant to habitat protection.

In total, this included 217 acres of land owned by the town — excluding the West Middle Creek parcel, which was recently rezoned from Natural Area Preservation to allow for future housing — with 190 of those acres considered habitat for bighorn sheep, elk or mule deer. 

“There are 11 parcels highlighted, most of them are falling within the habitat zone for wildlife and bighorn sheep in particular,” said Kristen Bertuglia, the town’s director of environmental sustainability. “There’s documented use of each of the parcels by bighorn sheep and most of them fall within their critical winter range.”

The town identified 11 parcels that are town-owned, north of I-70, and considered habitat for local wildlife.
Town of Vail/Courtesy Photo

Town staff further sorted these 11 parcels into two categories:

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  • Parcels that may be appropriate to be designated open space but are not currently (of which staff placed five parcels as meeting these criteria)
  • Parcels that are currently designated open space, but could be considered for a conservation easement by the Land Trust (of which staff placed four parcels as meeting these criteria)

There were two parcels that fell under the general criteria (north of I-70 wildlife habitat owned by the town) but did not fall within either of the above two recommendations:

  • One is located at the Booth Creek trailhead and has development (a parking lot and restroom), which Bertuglia said was already too developed and would still need to be maintained
  • The second is located west of Spraddle Creek, and includes the trail access and parking lot. It is already designated open space and was the only parcel not marked as bighorn habitat.

Open space versus conservation

According to Bertuglia, the difference between designated open space and placing a conservation easement is the level of protection each offers.

Designated open space is “an overlay that was put into place years ago and it’s an extra layer of protection for environmentally sensitive lands,” she said.

In creating this overlay, the town also established an Open Space Board of Trustees — which includes one member of the Town Council, the town manager and one member of the Planning and Environmental Commission — which provides recommendations for this designation.

This is a designation that while not impossible, has an “extremely high bar” to reverse, Bertuglia said. This reversal requires multiple votes by the trustees, the council and Vail’s registered voters.

On the flip side, a conservation easement is a “permanent protection beyond all of us,” Bertuglia explained, adding that it adds a “final level of protection, and review and oversight, that designated open space doesn’t have.”

“The purpose of the designated open space was: make it nearly impossible to utilize that land for anything but open space, a conservation easement would preclude the opportunity of taking that to a vote of the people to release it for some other use other than open space,” said Town Manager Russ Forrest.

Four total parcels were recommended by staff to receive this “permanent” protection, two of which had been identified for this easement in the town’s Open Lands Plan. Bertuglia described these as “really steep parcels, not developable but very, very important for habitat. The other two, while not identified in the plan, are already designated open spaces and have similar habitat identifiers.

Necessary or not?

At Tuesday’s meeting, Town Council was split on whether these precautions were necessary or not.

“I think it stands up with our commitment to doing the right thing for the bighorn sheep and further nurturing and supporting that space for them and doing what we can to create better habitat all around,” said Mayor Kim Langmaid. “I don’t know what future councils’ priorities might be but right now I know that this council has a pretty strong priority to maintain and improve that habitat so that’s why I’m in support of it.”

However, others felt that because the town already owned the parcels, the designations were addressing a threat that doesn’t currently exist.

Council member Travis Coggin said he was a “no on all of them.”

“We own them, nothing is happening to them. People tried to draw the correlation between this and Booth Heights, it’s not the same, that’s private property, this is all owned by the town,” Coggin said. “Because the town owns all of this, I’m not concerned about some development … I believe they’re important for bighorn sheep, I’m not saying that it’s not, I’m just saying that it’s already owned by the town.”

Ultimately, the consensus was that more information was required before the council makes any official decisions or determinations.

To get this information, the council ultimately supported referring all nine of the identified parcels to the Open Space Board of Trustees, who will review the designations and give their recommendations. It was also recommended that the council potentially visit some of the locations to “ground truth it,” as Langmaid put it.

Town staff will then return to the council with a more refined recommendation and with more information before it makes any determinations.

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