CARBONDALE - Mule deer in the vicinity of Rock Bottom Ranch could suffer the consequences of the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority going against the recommendation of its wildlife consultant Thursday.
Wildlife biologist Jonathan Lowsky advised the transportation agency to close a midvalley stretch of the Rio Grande Trail two weeks earlier than it does now. The nearly 4-mile stretch of trail from Rock Bottom Ranch to Catherine Bridge is closed from Dec. 1 through April 30. Lowsky advised starting the closure two weeks earlier, on Nov. 15, for the benefit of mule deer.
Lowsky is paid by RFTA to monitor the trail's impact on wildlife in the Rock Bottom Ranch area. Every five years, RFTA's board of directors reviews the rules and can modify them.
RFTA's staff advised the board not to accept Lowsky's recommendation. The staff was concerned that trail users would be confused by changing the closure date, Angela Kincade, assistant director of facilities and trails for RFTA, told the board at a meeting Thursday in Carbondale.
"Staff feels that with the current trail rules and (best management practices) that a good balance has been achieved between trail users and those wishing to do more to protect the area's wildlife," said a staff memo prepared for the meeting. "After five years, the public is now educated on the current trail closure period and accepts and respects it."
The staff's reasoning didn't sway the board majority. Five of the seven voting members of RFTA's board favored Lowsky's recommendation over the staff's advice. The board voted 5-2 to support the earlier closure. However, RFTA's rules require a supermajority of its eight jurisdictions to pass or change a rule. That meant six votes were required to change the closure date.
Voting to support the earlier closure were: Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt, Aspen Councilman Torre, New Castle Mayor Frank Breslin, Carbondale Mayor Stacey Bernot and Glenwood Springs Mayor Ted Edmonds.
Voting against the earlier closure were Pitkin County Commissioner Michael Owsley and Snowmass Village Councilman John Wilkinson.
Whitsitt made the motion for the closure.
"I would like to follow Jonathan and (Colorado Parks and Wildlife's) recommendation," she said, explaining she felt it was important for the benefit of wildlife. "The humanity part of our valley is pretty much overrunning everything."
Owsley countered that he hadn't seen any evidence from Lowsky or the state wildlife division that "established that there's anything critical to the survival of the mule deer or bald eagles" with an earlier closure.
RFTA didn't ask Lowsky to attend the meeting and provide justification for his recommendation. Kincade noted Lowsky had presented his findings to the board at an earlier meeting - months ago.
When contacted at his Basalt office by The Aspen Times on Thursday after the RFTA meeting, Lowsky said he recommended the Nov. 15 closure because that would give mule deer greater, undisturbed access to a place they are attracted to in late fall. Colorado Parks and Wildlife has observed mule deer coming down from the Crown and browsing in the valley floor around Rock Bottom Ranch during the second half of November and into December, he said. Lowsky's own observations confirmed that pattern.
"Mule deer use the corridor to a great extent at that time of year," he said. "Those two weeks are as important as the first two weeks of December."
It's a critical time because mule deer are packing on the calories "to survive the winter," Lowsky said. When snow starts to accumulate in the valley floor, elk come down and out-compete mule deer for food. Also, deep snow drives mule deer onto southern-exposed hillsides where they can find food.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife is concerned about the overall deer populations in the Roaring Fork Valley, although Lowsky said he has observed stable populations of deer and other wildlife using the Rio Grande Trail corridor.
The requirement of a supermajority vote to change the trail closure irked some members of RFTA's board of directors. No representative of the Eagle County commissioners attended, so only seven of the eight member jurisdictions in RFTA voted Thursday. Had Eagle County attended, a positive vote would have been required from that board member to pass the Nov. 15 closure.