It’s trails versus herons | AspenTimes.com

It’s trails versus herons

John ColsonAspen, CO Colorado

PITKIN COUNTY It looks as though it will be hedges for the herons for now, but there may yet be changes to the seasonal closure dates of the Rio Grande Trail between Rock Bottom Ranch and the Catherine Store Road bridge.Users of the embattled, 400-meter portion of the popular downvalley bike trail may notice a few more trees and a hedge of river hawthorn and chokecherry springing up along the trail this summer.The plantings are part of a broad effort to bring great blue herons back to a heronry they have occupied since the 1970s, but abandoned in early May. The additional landscaping will help shield the trail from the nesting area.But other decisions regarding the trail as it passes close to the now-vacant heron nests will wait until next fall, after a special commission has had time to investigate the matter and make recommendations to the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority board, which oversees the trail.The RFTA board of directors talked about a trail-versus-herons issue for about two hours Thursday, in response to midvalley landowners’ claims that the opening of the trail to bicyclists and others May 1 caused the herons to leave their nests.Any other decisions regarding the trail – which is across the Roaring Fork River from the now-vacant heron nests – will wait until next fall, after a special commission has had time to investigate the matter and make recommendations.More than 25 people attended the 8:30 a.m. meeting, many of whom spoke their minds on the issue. Some were in favor of increases to trail closure times.Users of the embattled, 400-meter portion of the popular downvalley bike trail might notice a few more trees, a hedge of river hawthorn and some chokecherry bushes springing up along the trail this summer.The plantings are part of a broad effort to bring great blue herons back to an area – called a “heronry” – they have occupied since the 1970s but abandoned in early May, by shielding the nesting area from the trail.Wildlife consultant Jonathan Lowsky, laid out recommendations in a lengthy report he compiled after talking with neighbors, and wildlife and bird experts around the region. His recommendations included the planting of trees and shrubs, which wildlife officials called “vegetation screening.”Lowsky confirmed the abandonment of the heronry – which has consisted of as many as nine active nests in what is called the “eastern section,” near Rock Bottom Ranch, and nine more in the “western section,” farther downstream from the eastern section. But he reiterated conclusions that there is no way to know if the opening of the trail and the sudden upsurge in human activity there is the sole reason the herons departed. He said there were many other factors, including possible raiding of the nests by a rising raccoon population in the vicinity and a powerful storm that blew several nests to the ground only days before anyone noticed the abandonment.Other recommendations from Lowsky’s report included extending the closure of the trail to July 31 “to provide the herons with the greatest chance of returning and successfully fledgling young,” although he admitted after the board meeting that’s not likely.In fact, more than one board member during the meeting declared a preference to open the trail to all public users on a year-round basis, if it could happen without unacceptable disturbance of wildlife.”There is a people element here that hasn’t been discussed,” said board member Gary Tennenbaum, since the talk up until then had focused primarily on the trail’s impact on wildlife.And, Tennenbaum said, the trail is an “integral link between Carbondale and Basalt” and “connecting communities is incredibly important.”Lowsky also said he plans to work with Rock Bottom Ranch and its parent organization, the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, to reclaim an abandoned hayfield near the heronry and restore it to native riparian habitat. This, he said, would provide the herons with more foraging terrain and act as additional incentive for the birds to re-establish the heronry.John Colson’s e-mail address is jcolson@aspentimes.com


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