Government Trail may be closed an extra week in June

Aspen officials are looking to extend the closure of an area that includes the popular Government Trail to help protect elk calving areas.
Courtesy Photo

The U.S. Forest Service wants to close the area between the Snowmass and Buttermilk ski areas — including the popular Government Trail — for an extra week in June to further protect elk calving areas.

At their regular weekly work session Tuesday, Pitkin County commissioners were supportive of the idea, which would close the area until June 27, though the public will have an opportunity to comment on the extended closure before it goes into effect this summer.

“We’re trying to address a significant problem with elk decline,” Commissioner Greg Poschman said. “This is one of the steps to take to address it.”

Phil Nyland, biologist with the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, said the idea for the extra week came from the Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s local wildlife officer, who noticed that the ratio of juvenile elk to adults should be higher in this area.

While cold weather and predation can affect the juvenile population, disturbances from recreation also can negatively affect the important bond between mother and calf in the first weeks of the calf’s life, he said.

“(That relationship) is really important,” Nyland said. “It’s such an innate bond there.”

The calving area between Snowmass and Buttermilk has been closed to humans between May 15 and June 20 since 1993. Elk calves are usually born in late May and early June.

While Forest Service officials are looking at closing the area that includes the Government Trail for an extra week until June 27, the closure would not include the Tom Blake or Valhalla trails, which will be closed until June 20 as usual, Nyland said.

Poschman asked if an extra week was long enough and said he’d support a longer closure if officials thought it was necessary. That could become necessary depending on the results of a five-year elk study being conducted by CPW, though those results won’t be known for a few years, Nyland said.

Longtime area wildlife officials have historically determined that elk calving ends June 30, meaning the extra week is a good place to start. If the CPW study indicates a longer closure is necessary, it could be extended possibly as late as July 4, he said.

Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury wondered if dogs should be prohibited on the trail, or at least required to be on leash at all times. Currently dogs are required to be trained to obey voice commands and be within 10 feet of owners, Nyland said.

Gary Tennenbaum, Pitkin County’s Open Space and Trails Program director, pointed out that the extended closure area is a couple miles back and doesn’t generally attract many dogs.

“It’s not like Smuggler Mountain,” Tennenbaum said.

An official with the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association has been told of the extra-week closure and was supportive of it, said Kevin Warner, district ranger for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District.

The Forest Service is set to issue a letter in the coming days announcing the extended closure and beginning a 30-day public comment period, Warner said.