Vail Valley wildlife facing population declines due to development, traffic | VailDaily.com

Vail Valley wildlife facing population declines due to development, traffic

This elk, spotted near Red Cliff, is stuck in the snow and weakened from winter. Harsh conditions, as well as human interference with the animals' habitat, has caused big declines in herd numbers near Minturn and across the region.

VAIL — Humans and wildlife don't mix. The evidence of that has been building for decades, but a crisis may be nearing.

The Vail Symposium and the town of Vail on Thursday, Jan. 18, hosted a forum on the state of local wildlife. The news isn't good.

The presenters, from both public agencies and the private sector, painted a fairly glum picture.

"There's not any good news when it comes to wildlife in Eagle County," forum moderator Rob LeVine said in a phone call after the forum.

In fact, the situation is to the point where local wildlife officer Bill Andree, of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said the challenge now is simply to maintain what we have.

Andree, for more than a quarter-century, has talked to town and county officials about development's effects on wildlife. But those problems didn't start when he arrived.

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Former wildlife officer Chris Moser "talked about it in the (1970s)," Andree said. "Things are worse today."

One of the most significant declines has been in the elk herd that winters near Minturn. Aerial counts — which aren't definitive — of that herd have been conducted for years. In the 1990s, the herd counts were 1,000 or more. A 2014 count showed only 162 elk. Andree said the best estimates put the actual numbers around 1,400 in the 1990s and about 300 today.

The herd decline isn't unique to the Minturn area, Andree said.

"The decline we're seeing in the elk herd goes from Vail Pass to Aspen," he said. "It's not too tough to figure out why when you're looking at the levels of development, recreation and roads."

Beyond elk

Population declines have also hit herds of deer and bighorn sheep.

A small herd that uses a parcel in East Vail for its winter range is only 40 animals or so, a big decline from the winter of 2007-08, when a hard season killed off much of the herd.

And make no mistake, even a moderate winter is hard for wildlife to survive. Those animals are subsisting on starvation rations, Andree said. And, while this winter has been a moderate one, "it only takes one big storm to turn it into a bad winter," he said.

The size of the East Vail bighorn herd is precarious enough that a bad winter could wipe it out.

Many in Vail are also concerned about the prospect of a workforce housing project in East Vail. Vail Resorts in 2017 rezoned a 23.3-acre parcel just north of the Interstate 70 interchange at East Vail. A bit more than five acres is now zoned for housing, with the rest dedicated to preservation. Still, there are concerns that bringing humans that close to the herd could harm it.

Human impacts, particularly in the winter, are especially hard on wildlife. And those impacts come regardless of trail closures.

At the forum, U.S. Forest Service representative Jen Austin told the audience about a camera recording people on a trail closed for calving season. About 200 people were on that closed trail in about a week.

The problem isn't just pedestrians, either.

LeVine, an avid cyclist, said he was sobered by news about mountain bikers' impacts on wildlife.

"When (animals) see you, it bugs them," LeVine said. "Even if they stand up and walk away, it costs them calories."

In the winter, those calories are precious, and hard to come by.

What to do?

No one is suggesting tearing down buildings or tearing up roads or trails. But preserving what's left is going to be a big challenge.

Andree said Colorado Parks and Wildlife has some money available for preservation efforts done with local governments and groups. Some of those efforts can include prescribed burns to encourage new grass growth, aerial fertilization or noxious weed control. Efforts can also include enforcing trail closures.

Ultimately, though, preserving local wildlife comes down to people who want it to happen.

Longtime Vail resident Diana Donovan said too many people in the community decide they want a picture, or won't hurt wildlife with just one or two people on a trail.

"It's the reason we have rules," Donovan said. "The more people there are, the more rules you need. If there were 10 people in town, we wouldn't need any rules."

With so many people on trails, Donovan said it might be time to not build any more parking near trailheads.

Still, answers are hard to come by.

"I don't know what the solution is, except awareness," Donovan said.

LeVine said more sessions like the wildlife forum could be a useful tool to get the public's attention.

"We need to do this over and over," he said. And, pointing to the Jan. 18 session, LeVine said he hoped more younger people would participate, too.

"Where was just about anybody under age 45?" LeVine said. "Younger people will have the biggest impact."

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, smiller@vaildaily.com or @scottnmiller.

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High Five Access Media video recorded a wildlife forum in Vail on Thursday, Jan. 18. That video is available at highfivemedia.org.