Vail Valley photographer documents decline in wildlife numbers near Avon
Special to the Daily
EAGLE COUNTY — This summer and fall, there have been a number of articles and letters to the editor in the Vail Daily concerning the decline of wildlife populations in Eagle County. There have also been a number of programs and presentations (including mine) that discussed the decline of local wildlife populations. There may not be enough significant research to accurately document that change, but observations can be good anecdotal evidence.
I have a degree in biology, taught high school level biology for 16 years, worked as supervisory park ranger naturalist for 15 summers in Rocky Mountain National Park and have done some serious wildlife photography for five decades. Because of all that, I feel that I am a good observer of the wildlife around me.
I moved into Wildridge in the fall of 2003 and was immediately impressed with all the animals in the neighborhood. I have high quality images of many wildlife species around my home. I have trail cameras outside my house and after I moved here it was not uncommon to see a dozen deer and a lot of other species that triggered the cameras every night.
For many years, during the mule deer rut, I was amazed at all the bucks I saw. I witnessed and photographed a number of battles between rival bucks. Some happened out my dining room windows.
In the fall of 2014, I wondered how many bucks were really in my neighborhood. I decided to photograph all that I could find and see what that number was. I carry my long telephoto lens almost all the time in my car and I often drive the “long way” into Avon and back. From Wildridge, I drive up over West Wildwood Road, along Mountain Star Drive and down Buck Creek Road to Avon. I never went through the gate to Mountain Star. Whenever I saw a buck that was close enough for a head shot, I took multiple images.
I compiled all the images and compared the antlers to determine specific individuals. Once a buck sheds its velvet, the antlers never change unless something breaks off. Antlers are bone and are distinctive between individuals. You can compare size, general shape, thickness of sections, broken areas, number of points, number and position of tines, pedicle characteristics, as well as ear tatters and facial markings.
I then selected the best shots of each individual I identified. The number of individuals was astounding — 60 individual bucks from early September of 2014 to late December of 2014. I compiled all the images in that period into one contact sheet. I arranged them from the most impressive looking bucks to the rookies.
After that year, I have continued to drive the road watching for the animals, but the number of animals seemed to decline each year. This is not a one-year observation. The numbers have decreased dramatically since 2014.
It is now four years since that project and as of Dec. 10, 2018, I have counted only five individual bucks — only five. What is happening here? In addition to the low numbers, the most impressive buck I have seen would not make the top 20 in my 2014 gallery. The least impressive two bucks would be 59 and 60 in the grouping.
Perhaps the animals have not come down this low. It might be due to climate change and the resulting drought cycles. Predators and hunters may impact those numbers. A lot of new homes have been built in the area and the population of humans has increased. More houses, more lights, more cars, more dogs — less open space. An increase in walkers, hikers, bikers, snowshoers and cross-country skiers.
Is this a change that we want in the valley? I do not have the scientific data to explain this incredible change, but something is definitely changing. Are the animals hanging out somewhere else, or … ?
Those units are all deed-restricted, meaning that only people who work an annual average of 30 hours per week can live there. That keeps the apartments out of the short-term rental pool and available to local residents.