Division of Wildlife demands protection for Burnt Mountain
State wildlife officials are demanding the Aspen Skiing Co. scale back a proposal to use the Elk Camp area of Snowmass during summers and beef up efforts to keep mountain bikers, hikers and their dogs off upper Burnt Mountain.In a strongly worded letter to the U.S. Forest Service, the wildlife division said the elk herd in the Snowmass Village area is already losing habitat and showing signs of falling reproductive rates.The state agency said the Skico’s summer activity at Elk Camp, as currently proposed, could result in “direct habitat loss” for wildlife and increased disturbance of Burnt Mountain.”Due to the proximity to Burnt Mountain, the division has concerns that the significant increase in amount of human activity in this area will lead to more access, use of and disturbance to Burnt Mountain,” the wildlife division’s letter said.Retired wildlife officers have made similar claims, but the Division of Wildlife’s position is significant because it represents the state’s official position. The wildlife division submitted comments as part of the Forest Service’s “scoping” process, or collection of public comments on the Skico plan.The Skico has been working with Kevin Wright, the wildlife officer for the Aspen district, and has vowed it would alter its plan rather than harm the elk herd.Elk herd feeling the squeezeThe elk herd using Burnt Mountain is feeling a squeeze already. Private development on East Owl Creek and increased summer use of the ski area is pinching the migration route available to the herd. Disturbance also threatens calving areas and summer use of Burnt Mountain, the division said.The elk population in the area that includes Burnt Mountain has dropped from about 7,500 in 1995 to 5,500 at the end of 2004, according to the wildlife division’s letter, signed by Area Wildlife Manager Pat Tucker.The ratio of calves to cows has also dropped in four of the last five years, “indicating decreased reproduction and functional habitat conditions,” Tucker wrote.The wildlife division is establishing elk population objectives across the state. The targeted population is determined primarily by available habitat, according to agency spokesman Randy Hampton. The wildlife division is proposing a population of 4,500 elk for the unit that includes Burnt Mountain – or about 1,000 less than the current population.However, if a new development affected habitat – by causing disturbance to calving areas or migration routes, for instance – then the population objective would have to be reduced further, Hampton said.In other words, the local elk herd is already larger than can be supported due to losses in habitat. The answer to the problem isn’t reducing more habitat. The wildlife division’s answer is issuing more cow elk hunting permits.Skico working with DOWThe Skico received approvals from the Forest Service in 1994, after a hard-fought battle with environmentalists, to undertake several projects at Snowmass. For example, it was granted approval to build a gondola from the base to the Elk Camp side of the mountain. It also had approval to use an existing service road as a route for hikers, bikers and equestrians.Now that the Skico is ready to implement the plan, it has tweaked its proposal. It wants to construct five new trails, for example.The wildlife division doesn’t want any deviation from the 1994 approval. It demanded bold steps by the Skico and Forest Service to keep people off upper Burnt Mountain. Those include: Using temporary fences on ski runs, traverses and the summit of the Elk Camp lift to prevent access to Burnt Mountain during calving season. Signs should be posted explaining why the closure is in effect, the wildlife division said. The five new trails should be eliminated from the plan. All summer activity should be specifically discussed before any approval is granted. Gondola riders should be given a map showing the closed area and explaining the reasons.Bill Kane, the Skico’s vice president of planning and design, said the number of trails and their alignments will be reconsidered to reduce effects on Burnt Mountain. All activity might be steered west of the Elk Camp lift, where a natural ridge creates a good barrier, Kane said. All trails might be isolated in the Sandy Park area.Kane has stressed that the Skico will work with the Division of Wildlife to alter its permit, if necessary, before the Forest Service cranks up its review.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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