Light Hill project aims to benefit deer and elk
OLD SNOWMASS ” State and federal officials said Wednesday night that they will clear thick brush off about 258 acres of the midvalley’s Light Hill this spring and summer to help beleaguered deer and elk populations.
A similar project on 376 acres last summer sparked controversy when people saw that large swaths of vegetation were cleared on the mountaintop in the Old Snowmass area. Some environmentalists questioned if the project was necessary. The Bureau of Land Management and Colorado Division of Wildlife defended their actions. This year they went on the offensive ” before the project ” to explain to the public what is happening. Officials from both agencies gave a presentation Wednesday night, but few members of the public attended.
The complementary goals of the project are to reduce the amount of natural fuels and improve critical winter habitat for deer and elk, said Ody Anderson, a BLM fuels specialist. Clearing oak brush thickets as well as some pinion and juniper stands will allow grass to grow. That provides forage for big game in winters and creates a fire break in summers.
“Once we get a good forage base up there, hopefully it will hold the animals,” Anderson said. If so, that could reduce the number of deer and elk hit on Highway 82, he said.
Kevin Wright, a longtime wildlife manager in the Roaring Fork Valley for the wildlife division, said there is an inaccurate perception that deer and elk are doing well in the area. Surveys show that the annual birth rate for elk is in the low 30s per 100 cows. The rate should be 48 to 52 calves per 100 cows, he said. Birth rates for deer in the Roaring Fork Valley also lag behind numbers the wildlife division wants to see.
Improving the condition of the existing winter habitat is critical to boosting those numbers, Wright said. Last summer, the BLM and wildlife division hired a contractor that used heavy equipment to mulch brush on about 263 acres within a 370-acre pocket on the top of Light Hill. Drainages and corridors were left alone. The effect was a mosaic. The work was highly visible from the popular Arbaney Kittle Trail across the valley and from some spots on the valley floor. Some people criticized what they considered a “clear cutting.”
This year, the agencies will team for a planned prescribed burn on about 100 acres of Light Hill and mechanical treatment on another 158 acres. The prescribed burn could take place within the next two to three weeks, weather permitting, Anderson said. The mechanical treatment will start around July 1.
Critics of last summer’s work said the mechanical treatment started too early. The work in June threatened some songbirds that were “secondary clutchers,” those that were nesting after their first attempts failed. Wright said the availability of funds and a desire to avoid the typical July monsoon forced the timing.
“Did we impact some of the songbirds? Probably,” Wright said. “I’m not going to deny it. I’m not going to run away from it.”
But the benefit for deer and elk outweighed what he said was a slight impact on songbirds. “You can’t manage every piece of public land for every species,” Wright said. He later added that the healthy habitat being created by the project will also benefit songbirds and numerous other species. Within two or three years, it will be difficult to tell any removal of vegetation occurred on Light Hill because of the recovery of the grasses, he said.
This year, funds don’t have to be spent by the end of June, so the project will be delayed until July, easing the risk to songbirds.
The agencies would prefer to use prescribed burn to improve habitat and reduce fuels on Light Hill and throughout the Roaring Fork Valley. Factors like air quality standards, development to the borders of public lands and the public’s wariness of burning as a land management tool limit its use.
“Smokey Bear taught us that fire is bad. We’ve been beating that message for 50 years,” said Lathan Johnson, assistant fire management officer for the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management district, a consortium of federal land management agencies. It will take time for the public to accept prescribed burn as a legitimate tool, he said.
Fire can be an effective tool because the costs of prescribed burns can be as low as $20 to $40 per acre on large projects compared to $300 to $350 per acre for mechanical treatment, Johnson said. The cost of fire suppression is $1,000 to $10,000 per acre.
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