County keeps tabs on elk migration |

County keeps tabs on elk migration

Jeremy Heiman

As the open rural areas of Pitkin County continue to be developed, areas used by elk during their fall migration are becoming more constricted.

Pitkin County’s staff wildlife biologist, Jonathan Lowsky, has begun an effort to keep closer tabs on where groups of elk feed and rest before they assemble in larger herds for the winter. The county will use the information in long-range planning, the acquisition of open space and the review of development applications.

To gather information, Lowsky arranged a flight Tuesday with pilot Bruce Gordon, one of the founders of LightHawk. LightHawk is a nonprofit organization that donates flight time for conservation purposes.

“We want to look at specific areas where we know [elk] are at this point in their migration,” Lowsky said. “We want to see how development has affected where they go since 1996.”

That year was the last time an effort was made to observe the fall migration.

During the flight, Lowsky studied migration patterns and routes, accumulating more data on what areas are essential to the migration.

It’s important to realize that migration corridors are not linear pathways, Lowsky said. Instead, they are wide areas of temporary habitat between the animals’ summer range and winter range, offering forage and safe areas to bed down.

“They are being constricted more and more by all this development,” he said. “It’s imperative that we keep these migration routes and the best habitat between their summer range and their winter range open.”

Lowsky makes recommendations that influence the county’s decisions on land use applications. Guided by county land-use code, Lowsky uses the best “mapped or field-verified” information available to him to comment on every building application that the county’s planning department receives. He submits recommendations to county planners, who in turn make recommendations to the county commissioners.

“In that way, the information helps shape development,” Lowsky said.

Sometimes developers challenge the information, and Lowsky is brought into a public hearing to defend his recommendation.

“The more information I have, the more credibility I have,” he said.

Further, Lowsky will team up next year with the Colorado Division of Wildlife, his former employer, to update that agency’s Wildlife Resource Information System, or WRIS. That system uses a computer program called GIS to map the range and presence of wildlife species.

Lowsky will be working with Aspen District wildlife manager Kevin Wright, Basalt manager Kelly Wood and Carbondale-area manager Matt Thorpe to revise the area’s WRIS maps on elk and numerous other species.

Views from the air Tuesday revealed that upper-valley elk herds have not yet reached their regular winter range, but it also made clear that construction of houses is continuing in the path of migration routes in some places. It has been established that the roads and dogs that come with house development in rural areas deprive elk of their migratory habitat.

Williams Hill and Light Hill flank Snowmass Creek at Highway 82, Williams on the upvalley side and Light on the downvalley side. On Williams Hill, only one small band of elk could be seen, bedded down near the ridge on the north side. A few more were seen on Light Hill.

“They’re still in what I call their transitional range,” Lowsky said. “Once they’re in their full-on winter range, you’ll see herds of three, four, five hundred.”

Gordon flew over the broad agricultural lands between Snowmass Creek and Capitol Creek, and as the plane topped the ridge between Capitol Creek and East Sopris Creek a larger band of elk, numbering perhaps a dozen, was seen, bedded down in the snow. Near there, a massive home construction project came into view on the same ridge, isolated by wild country all around.

“There’s no way to stop that kind of thing?” Gordon asked.

“No,” replied Lowsky. “We can site-plan it to make them avoid the wetlands and rockfall hazards and that kind of thing.” The owners are having a road built to the site.

More elk were sighted on the ridge between Snowmass Creek and Wildcat Reservoir and in the Wildcat valley.

From Wildcat, LightHawk flew over a ridge into the lower end of Brush Creek Valley. From above the ridge between Brush Creek and the Owl Creek Valley, a number of elk were spotted lying in the snow about one-third of the way down the slope from the ridge.

“Peter Droste wants to build houses all along this ridge,” Lowsky said. But the ridge is actually one of the more important areas to the elk herd, he observed.

“The shrubs on the ridge are all eaten down to a nub,” he said, indicating heavy use by the herd. Elk favor ridges for safety. Visibility is good and downhill escape routes are available to either side.

Crossing over into Owl Creek Valley, a good-sized herd was spotted making its way across a snowy pasture on Owl Creek Ranch, heading toward the Droste property. The low November sun stretched and warped their shadows across the white backdrop.

Droste has submitted an application to build a huge house in the area where they are headed, Lowsky said.

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