Vail council agrees to small controlled burn to boost bighorn sheep habitat
Small burns this spring just the first step to enhance habitat for local herd
VAIL — The first step in a habitat restoration effort for bighorn sheep in East Vail will start this spring. It will be a small step.
The Vail Town Council on Tuesday afternoon approved a plan for a pair of prescribed burns on property on the north side of Interstate 70, just west of the East Vail interchange.
The burns will be small — one of just more than 2 acres, and another of just less than 2 acres — one burn will be on town property, the other on a small parcel owned by the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Vail Fire Chief Mark Novak told council members that the department will develop a burn plan, will seek approval from state transportation officials and must obtain a smoke permit from the town.
With all that said, Novak said the project could begin in April, with those small burns taking five or six hours each. Starting in April would leave enough time for the burned-off plants to re-sprout. That will provide forage for wildlife next winter.
The burns are part of a number of ideas to enhance habitat for the small bighorn herd in the area. Other steps include pruning overgrown trees and shrubs, removing fallen dead timber and, perhaps, fertilizing some areas to encourage more plant growth.
A new urgency
Steps to protect the herd have taken on new urgency since Vail Resorts, in 2017, rezoned one of its 23.3-acre parcels north of the East Vail Interchange. Triumph Development is now working on a plan that would put workforce housing on 5.4 acres on the site. The remainder is zoned “natural area preservation,” one of the town’s most restrictive zoning designations.
Preserving the herd is going to be a key element of the proposal.
Michael Connolly, Triumph’s manager for the East Vail project, said Tuesday that the company has plans for wildlife habitat enhancement on that parcel. Depending on town approval, that could also begin this spring.
Town officials are working on habitat enhancements for property just to the west that’s also inside an area designated as critical winter range for the bighorn.
Where there’s fire, there’s smoke; council members said they’ve heard from some residents concerned about that.
The U.S. Forest Service in the late 1990s proposed a much bigger burn in the area. East Vail residents strongly opposed that plan, and it was never carried out.
Council member Jenn Bruno said she’d heard from residents that people then were concerned that prescribed burn might get out of control and threaten the neighborhood.
Acknowledging that prescribed fires are always a “delicate operation,” Novak said he and his department are “very confident” they can control the small burns that are planned.
Council member Kim Langmaid, who founded the Walking Mountains Science Center, said fire is an essential element of the natural world. Lands can be much more healthy with small fires, she said.
Will it help?
While council members asked Novak to go ahead with planning for the small fires this spring, former wildlife officer Bill Andree questioned the usefulness of just that burn.
Andree, who was the Vail area’s wildlife officer for 38 years, said burning on just four acres could lead other animals into the area. Those animals might over-graze the area, leaving the bighorn worse off.
Town Manager Greg Clifton said the burns are part of a more comprehensive habitat restoration effort. That effort on town and state land could include pruning, fallen-log removal and fertilizing some parcels.
Council member Jenn Bruno said those next steps should be a priority.
“If we’re going to approve this, we need to make sure the other elements happen as soon as possible,” Langmaid said.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at email@example.com and 970-748-2930.
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It’s fitting that Eagle County is proceeding through its reopening phases of COVID-19 in an analogy to ski run difficulties — green to blue to black. Monday marks the transition from the green beginner phase to the blue intermediate phase.