Elk Camp plan at Snowmass ‘best under the circumstances’
ASPEN – The Aspen Skiing Co. deserves credit for taking numerous steps to try ease the effects of turning the Elk Camp portion of Snowmass Ski Area into a summer activity hub, Colorado Division of Wildlife officers said Tuesday night.
But in a perfect world, it would be best to avoid further development that affects elk using Burnt Mountain as summer range, said Perry Will, area wildlife manager for the DOW. “No development is better than some,” he said.
The U.S. Forest Service granted the Skico permission in 1994 to use Elk Camp for summer activity. The Skico is following through after 16 years by shifting the summer on-mountain focus from Sam’s Knob to Elk Camp. The state wildlife division is working with Forest Service and Skico officials to “mitigate” effects on wildlife.
“Would the elk herd be better off if there wasn’t a ski area? Yes. Would the elk herd be better off if there wasn’t development associated with the ski area? Yes,” Will said.
But given that federal approvals were granted in 1994, the wildlife division is concentrating on arranging mitigation steps with the Skico. “It’s the best solution under the circumstances,” he said.
Will’s comments came before and during a public meeting in Aspen held by Dorothea Farris, a Carbondale resident and a board member of the Colorado Wildlife Commission. About eight wildlife officers attended to address issues, but only three members of the public and one reporter showed up. Burnt Mountain was a leading topic.
Kevin Wright, longtime wildlife officer for the Aspen district, said the Skico has been “100 percent cooperative” with wildlife division requests for mitigation at Elk Camp.
The Skico has agreed to curtail activity at Elk Camp before June 20 to avoid interference with elk calving season on Burnt Mountain. It will build two new trails, one for hikers and one for mountain bikers, that lead away from Burnt Mountain rather than toward it. It will discourage customers who ride the Elk Camp Gondola after June 20 from venturing onto Burnt Mountain, though it cannot completely restrict access to the public lands.
“Is it a compromise? Yes, but we’re trying to work with it,” Wright said.
If there is evidence that increased use of Elk Camp pumps hordes of hikers and bikers onto Burnt Mountain, Wright said he will seek a closure of the area above Government Trail by the Forest Service.
Burnt Mountain is important to what is known as the Avalanche Creek elk herd as calving ground in the spring. That importance of that real estate has grown in the last two decades as East Owl Creek development has pinched in from one side and Snowmass Village has encroached on the other, Wright said.
After the elk calve, they use upper Burnt Mountain for summer range and wander into West Willow and the Willow Creek drainage.
Wright said the ratio of calves to cows for all herds in the Roaring Fork Valley has dropped through the 1980s into the 1990s and further last decade. Winter range is in poor condition. Habitat has been lost. Pressure from recreational pursuits is soaring, he said.
The calving rate for the Avalanche Creek elk herd is lower than for herds overall in the valley. There were 30 calves being born per 100 cows in 2005. That dropped to 21 calves per 100 cows in 2008, according to statistics supplied earlier by the wildlife division. A ratio in the 40s is self-sustaining.
The Avalanche Creek elk herd’s population fell from about 7,500 in 1995 to 4,023 in 2008. Wright said numerous factors are involved in the loss.
Wright and Will didn’t single out the Skico project for being detrimental to elk.
“Skico is stepping up to the plate and taking the steps outlined in the [Forest Service approval],” Wright said.
The Skico plans to offer lunch at Cafe Suzanne this summer. There will be music at the restaurant, numerous activities for kids and the new trails for hikers and bikers that connect into a larger network.
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