Guest opinion: Don’t condemn workers and bighorn sheep
We have been watching the issue in East Vail which, we believe, inappropriately pits wildlife against workforce housing. What has been framed as a bighorn sheep versus employee housing issue is actually a rare opportunity for a solution that helps both.
We have over 80 years of collective experience in resolving difficult wildlife/natural resources issues and believe that this issue can, and should, be resolved in a way that provides workforce housing and improves the long-term habitat needs of the bighorn sheep.
It is clear that communities in Colorado, like the town of Vail, are in desperate need of affordable and safe places for workers to live. At the same time, there is no question that wildlife has been displaced and their habitat diminished by development in places like Eagle County. It is also clear that the 5 acres bordered by Interstate 70 is not a natural habitat where wild sheep will thrive. Sheep using this parcel are being pushed there by degraded habitat in their traditional range, and as a result are exposed to danger in the form of speeding vehicles, harassment and potential poaching. The responsible thing to do from a purely wildlife management perspective is to attract the sheep back to safer and more suitable, enhanced habitat. We are heartened by recent work and planning to improve habitat in the entire winter sheep range around Eagle County.
In 2019, a team of consulting wildlife biologists recommended measures to move the sheep away from the highway. We have reviewed these measures and think they are thoughtful and would be very successful. Our only modification would be to consider these “survival” actions for the sheep, not simply “mitigation” — because it is imperative to get the sheep off of the highway and frontage road and back up the mountain into the wild where they can thrive.
We have been either directly engaged in this issue or on the sidelines watching for several years and only felt the need to get involved when we saw that the Town Council was contemplating taking the land through its powers of eminent domain. We have never seen a similar action in a case like this — and worry that this precedent will actually hurt wildlife in the long run.
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As lifelong public servants for both the state and federal government, we were always taught that condemnation should only be used as a last resort if necessary to achieve a public purpose. The dual public purposes of providing housing and protecting a small band of bighorn sheep are within our grasp right now through the proposed workforce housing project and habitat work. To miss out on this opportunity, it seems to us, can only be described as a failure.
When wildlife is inappropriately used as a barrier to societal needs, it reinforces the myth that solutions must be win/lose. In the case of the East Vail workforce housing proposal, there is a way to provide two societal goods. Surprisingly, the Vail Town Council appears poised to bypass this golden opportunity to provide significant affordable workforce housing and improve the long-term habitat needs of the bighorn sheep.
Pursuing the nuclear option — condemnation — will guarantee a lose/lose for the community. What would actually be condemned in this case is not the land in question, rather it is the valley’s workers and the magnificent bighorn.
We urge Town Council to keep the dialogue open and find the path that benefits both — rather than foreclose all options through condemnation. With the wealth in a community like Vail, and with partners such as Colorado Parks & Wildlife, the U.S. Forest Service, Vail Resorts, Colorado Department of Transportation, and nonprofit wildlife organizations, there are plenty of resources available to achieve a lasting and positive solution. We would like to offer our help in any way we can to realize this opportunity.
Ron Velarde is a former Colorado Parks and Wildlife regional manager for the Northwest Region who spent 47 years protecting Colorado’s wildlife before retiring. Rick Cable is a former director for Colorado Parks and Wildlife (2011-2013), a former regional forester for the Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service (2001-2011) and a former vice president of conservation and natural resources for Vail Resorts (2013-2017). He currently runs his own consulting business.