Expert: Keep midvalley trail segment closed in winter
CARBONDALE – A councilman’s suggestion to open a section of the Rio Grande Trail that is closed for winters could spell trouble for deer and other critters, a wildlife biologist told the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority on Thursday.
Carbondale councilman and RFTA board of directors member John Hoffmann said at a board meeting that he wants the trail opened for one winter to collect empirical data on the effect of recreational use on wildlife. The targeted stretch of trail is between Catherine Bridge on the west and Rock Bottom Ranch on the east. The two-mile section of trail parallels the Roaring Fork River on one side and a steep embankment of the Crown on the other.
Jonathan Lowsky, a wildlife biologist who has been under contract to RFTA for the past five years to monitor the trail’s effects on wildlife, calmly but firmly explained how harmful Hoffmann’s suggestion would be. The Crown, public land held by the Bureau of Land Management, is “sort of the crown jewel” of winter range for deer and elk in the Roaring Fork Valley, he said. There are roughly 1,000 deer and elk combined that use the area. Mountain lions are abundant.
Ungulates and other wildlife regularly come off the Crown and cross the trail corridor to access the river, he said. That use would be disrupted if the trail was open to hiking and skiing in the winter.
In addition, the closure enables roughly 300 elk to winter at Rock Bottom Ranch when there is enough snowpack to drive them to the valley floor. They would likely abandon the ranch if the trail was used during winters, Lowsky said.
“I caution you about the risk to these populations,” Lowsky said.
He explained that use of the corridor wouldn’t be as disruptive during a winter such as this because the low amount of snow is allowing animals to stay higher in elevation. But in the snowy winter of 2007-08, “it would have mattered,” Lowsky said. “There would have been more die-off.”
Even if deer and elk don’t run away from humans, their hearts beat faster, and they burn more calories when humans are present, he said. They need all their energy just to survive winter, he said.
Opening the trail for one winter wouldn’t provide any useful data because weather conditions are so variable. The winter closure has been in place from Dec. 1 through April for the five years the trail has been completed. It would require five years of winter opening to determine the effect on wildlife, Lowsky said.
“The consequences may be dire” if the trail is opened for a few winters, he said.
Other board members were quick to express support for keeping the winter closure in place. RFTA board Chairman Michael Owsley nipped the conversation in the bud. The board isn’t scheduled to act on a wildlife management plan until later this spring and summer, he said.
Lowsky recommended a two-week expansion of the winter closure. He suggested that it close starting Nov. 15 to follow a recommendation by officials from Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
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