Vail to create task force to improve wildlife habitat
Group will include town, state, federal representatives; work will start in January
VAIL — The idea to improve wildlife habitat in Vail has been bouncing around for some time. Expect to see some concrete steps soon.
Vail Town Manager Scott Robson Tuesday gave the Vail Town Council a look at the structure of what he’s calling the “Vail Habitat Improvement Task Force.”
That group will be comprised of town officials — council members, fire department representatives and others — as well as representatives from the U.S. Forest Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife. An independent wildlife biologist will also be brought in. Meetings could begin in January.
The idea, Robson said, is to establish a plan of action that could begin as soon as this spring and last into the fall.
Helping the herd
The idea is to improve habitat for the herd of bighorn sheep that winters in an area on the north side of Interstate 70 in East Vail. That herd drew widespread community attention in 2017 when Vail Resorts sought, and received, town approval to rezone a 23.3-acre parcel for workforce housing.
Through just about a year of further work and numerous meetings, Vail-based Triumph Development received town approval for the Booth Heights workforce housing project on a portion of that parcel.
As part of the approval, Triumph agreed to provide $100,000 for habitat work, mostly on land surrounding the parcel.
What that work will look like is one of the questions the task force will address.
To do that, task force members will need to look beyond the town’s boundaries into U.S. Forest Service property, including the nearby Eagles Nest Wilderness Area.
Stretching outside of town
That’s a problem. The habitat improvement work will include some prescribed burning, as well as thinning brush and trees. Both of those actions will encourage new growth of the kinds of plants sheep prefer.
But prescribed burns and thinning aren’t allowed in wilderness areas. That’s going to require special dispensation from the Forest Service.
Still, there’s work that can be done.
Robson said that’s why it will be important for interim district ranger Adam Bianchi to participate in the task force.
“We have a great relationship with the Forest Service,” Robson said. But, he added, that agency is chronically understaffed and short on funding. That’s why it’s important for the town to take the lead on the habitat restoration effort, Robson said.
While Bianchi will be at most meetings, Robson said White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams has also been invited.
Robson said the task force can help the Forest Service do its job by presenting a plan that meets the standards of the National Environmental Policy Act, the first step in the environmental evaluation of just about anything done on federal land.
Authoring an evaluation-ready plan will be the job of the independent biologist — probably one of the biologists hired during the Booth Heights hearings.
Vail resident Tom Vucich attended Tuesday’s council meeting, and said he was encouraged by Robson’s plans.
“It’s great the town has taken the lead on this,” Vucich said. “I was encouraged by (Robson’s) comment about sooner than later.”
And Robson is serious about sooner than later. His recommendation to the council is for meetings starting in January, with task force meetings held every two weeks.
“This is a great opportunity to play a leading role with our state and Forest Service partners,” Robson told the council.
In a subsequent phone interview, Robson said that a habitat improvement plan — he shied away from calling it “restoration” — is important beyond just the East Vail area.
“This affects everyone in Vail and the Vail Valley,” Robson said. “It’s habitat for our state animals… I think we’ll find a great partnership. And we’ve got to move forward.”
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-748-2930.