Feds, Skico need to care for elk herd | AspenTimes.com

Feds, Skico need to care for elk herd

The outcry by three former Colorado Division of Wildlife officials – one supervisor and two officers, all with extensive experience – should be sounding alarms about the Aspen Skiing Co.’s proposal to use Elk Camp at Snowmass Ski Area during summers.The U.S. Forest Service needs to take a detailed look at claims from three wildlife experts that the Burnt Mountain elk herd may be in jeopardy if summer activity on adjacent Elk Camp isn’t carefully controlled.The federal agency undertook an extensive study of environmental impacts of the Skico’s plans for the area in the early 1990s. The final Burnt Mountain plan set appropriate levels of development and activity, and outlined the steps the company must take to protect the elk herd.The Skico’s latest proposal would vary from that 1994 approval by adding more trails and courting more activity on Elk Camp.The 1994 approval included a gondola from the base to a mid-point station at the current site of Cafe Suzanne, then to the top of Burnt Mountain. The Skico deserves credit for scaling back the gondola’s reach with the terminus now at Cafe Suzanne.The 1994 approval also contemplated summer activity on Elk Camp. The current debate centers around the Skico’s proposal to increase the amount of activity and the potential affect of that activity on the elk using the adjacent Burnt Mountain.It’s easy to understand why Skico officials feel a little beat up over the poor reception their plan has received from wildlife experts. From the Skico’s perspective, they were pressed by elected officials in Snowmass Village to add activities at Elk Camp.But then again, it’s not necessarily bad that the Skico is feeling a little heat. The company isn’t entitled to do whatever it proposes on public lands that are so important to the ecology and economy of this region without intense public review and scrutiny.The position of Snowmass Village is more disturbing. The resort’s financial doldrums in recent years have been well documented. Town officials made a good case that the Base Village proposal was vital for the resort’s future success and won the backing of voters.But in its zeal to improve business, Snowmass Village officials are apparently willing to sacrifice the long-term health of an elk herd for the potential of increased economic vibrancy. But the elk herd isn’t theirs to sacrifice.The Forest Service owes it to residents of the upper valley to adhere to its 1994 decision, reached after painstaking research to determine what activity would be acceptable to the long-term health of the elk herd. We would also like to see the Skico stick closely to the plan that was approved in 1994. A good case can be made that a trail or two should be added so that not all hikers, bikers and equestrians are jammed onto the same route. But five new trails seems excessive.The Skico should also strictly adhere to the plan’s prohibition on running the gondola before June 21 to guarantee that summer activities won’t interfere with elk calving on Burnt Mountain. Fall activities should stop at Elk Camp before biologists say elk migrate back to lower grounds, usually in early October.Limiting activity and honoring the closures are the only real course of action, especially for a company that prides itself on being an environmental leader in the ski industry.