Wildlife Roundtable: Are we loving it to death?
With more outdoor users on public lands, stewardship is critical to protect our wild neighbors
Perhaps you have noticed that it seems that there are more people recreating in the outdoors than at any time in the past. Parking lots and trailheads are full of cars, and in some situations, cars are parked along the roadways because the lots are full.
There is a backup at times at boat launches because more people are on the rivers. You go into a store to buy some outdoor gear and they are sold out of what you want. Online stores say “back-ordered” on a lot of items. Even astrophotography gear is limited in availability because of an increase in interest.
Why? COVID-19 has had a huge impact on all of this. Since people could not go to places and events that normally involve a lot of people, they took up other interests where they can avoid those COVID-19 issues. Seems like they found out they had been missing out on something great and now want it more.
There is an increase in the number of people that are enjoying national parks, national forests, Bureau of Land Management lands, and state parks. In addition, lakes, rivers, and 14ers are seeing more and more people. More people are joining outdoor clubs and groups, signing up for blogs, and podcasts. Along with the increase of people, there is an increase in the impact on our public lands. “Getting away from it all” really did not work out in some situations.
A Pogo cartoon, by Walt Kelly, related to human impacts said it best: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” That phrase originated in 1953 with “The Pogo Papers,” and became better known with a poster Kelly was hired to illustrate for the first Earth Day in 1970! As the population increases, the enemy is becoming more and more of a problem.
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Because of that increase in use, we, as users of the great outdoors, need to think more about stewardship. Merriam-Webster defines stewardship as “the conducting, supervising, or managing of something; especially the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.” We have been entrusted with caring for public lands. We have to follow laws and regulations as it is incumbent on all of us to carefully manage those key resources in the most effective manner possible.
Native Americans viewed the land as sacred and still do. They view the land like churches for spiritual purposes, that the land itself was a sacred, living, being. Even water is sacred, as it sustains life. It seems that people in today’s world would benefit by considering our land and water in the same way as Native Americans. There are a lot of negative impacts on our resources that are easy to mitigate but, we should not leave it to federal and state land managers. All these problems are easy for individuals to correct and it takes little effort, if any.
People say put litter in its place. That makes no sense because it becomes litter when it is not disposed of properly. That includes dog waste. All of that “stuff” builds up at trailheads and along the trails. It is an eyesore, and in some cases, can be a danger to wildlife. If you brought it in, take it out, and dispose of it properly.
Because of increased trail use, trail closures are becoming more frequent. Trails are closed by wildlife and land managers to protect the land’s wildlife and resources. At certain times of the year, these closures protect animals in birthing grounds or in critical winter habitats. Timed entries being used by many agencies help to spread people out and reduce numbers to a level that the sites can sustain. All these measures help reduce or stop overuse that may have an impact on ecosystems and wildlife as a whole.
Backpackers and campers need to develop a mindset to protect ecosystems and wildlife. Regulations that restrict camping in certain areas are in place to protect the overuse of the land and protect water. A clean camp is something that most search for when they are out in the environment. A number of people have the mantra of “leave it cleaner than you found it!”
Hikers, bikers, horses, motorcycles, and ATVs all have a potential impact. Cutting trails and off-trail use that creates “social trails” and “roads” can cause erosion that destroys not only the appearance of the land but may cause runoff that damages land and water resources. Trail bars can help mitigate that erosion, but the best solution is to stay on the established roads and trails. Information about these closures can be found posted at trailheads and launch facilities and on the agency’s website.
Snowmachines are a somewhat different problem. In the winter, trails may not be clearly marked. Any county, city, or town acting by its governing body may regulate the operation of snowmobiles on public lands, waters, and property under its jurisdiction. Closures may be large areas and because of that may be difficult to post. Many of those closures are to protect winter feeding grounds for a variety of animals. Check with the local jurisdictions if you are not sure of the regulations for a specific area.
When we are out enjoying the outdoors, we often encounter wildlife. How close is too close? A few “rules of thumb,” one is literal, that I have used for years. If you encounter wildlife, extend your arm, and if you cannot cover the entire animal with your thumb, you are too close. If the animal is paying attention to you and not feeding, you are too close. If the animal changes its behavior, you are too close. Respect the wildlife to keep it healthy, particularly during winter months and drought conditions.
Fire danger is another area of concern. Any summer may have a high fire danger. Some areas of the state may have a smaller snowfall from previous years. This means that the lack of ground moisture may cause trees and grasses to dry out more quickly. That results in a higher fire danger. It is important that we all follow the fire regulations established by counties, and federal and state agencies!
Safety is an important consideration. The more people that are out recreating, the more people will get lost or injured. This puts a greater strain on search and rescue organizations. Be safe. Know where you are going, tell people close to you about your plans, and have the right gear with you to keep you safe. Spring can have wild swings in weather from 60º to below freezing in a few hours.
We are not going to reduce population growth or the number of people who travel to many of these outdoor locations. What we can do is reduce our impact by being responsible, following regulations, and seeking out areas where our activity is not harmful to the land and wildlife.
Rick Spitzer is a renowned wildlife photographer and longtime local who lives in Wildridge. The Eagle County Community Wildlife Roundtable is a collaborative partnership with the White River National Forest, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Bureau of Land Management, local government entities, community members and citizen scientists. The purpose of the Eagle County Community Wildlife Roundtable is to gather a group of diverse stakeholders in the valley to understand and address issues facing wildlife populations.