Big study planned on one of the major elk herds in Aspen area |

Big study planned on one of the major elk herds in Aspen area

Staff report
A herd of elk gathers off Owl Creek Road between Aspen and Snowmass Village in this file photo. Elk movement patterns will be studied as part of an extensive new study.
Aspen Times file photo

Pitkin County and the state government are teaming on a six-year study designed to learn more about the movements of one of the major elk herds in the Roaring Fork Valley.

The study will focus on what’s known as the Avalanche Elk Herd. That herd, which has numerous subsets, generally roams south of Highway 82 between Independence Pass and Glenwood Springs. Its territory includes the Maroon Bells, Marble and Redstone areas. It’s named after Avalanche Creek, wild terrain north of Redstone.

Pitkin County Open Space and Trails is providing $54,000 in the first year, according to Gary Tennenbaum, director of the program. Additional funding is likely in future years. Colorado Parks and Wildlife will provide additional funding as well as biologists to monitor the research.

“This study could produce data that is crucial to a better understanding the needs of elk and their use of county open space,” Tennenbaum said in a prepared statement. “Knowing where these animals move and when will be extremely helpful in better managing properties and establishing seasonal closures.”

As part of the study, cow elk in Pitkin County’s Sky Mountain Park will be temporarily captured and fitted with tracking collars. Most of the park is closed to human activity for the benefit of wildlife from Dec. 1 through May 15. The value of the study is worth the disturbance, Tennenbaum said.

Perry Will, area wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said research project may require use of helicopters and trail cameras in addition to fitting them with collars.

“It’s all for a very good cause,” Will said in a statement. “Local governments, local outdoor recreation businesses and local citizens all have a stake in what this study reveals, so we ask for the public’s cooperation and patience while the study is ongoing.”

The Avalanche elk herd’s plight has been a major topic of discussion in the debate over the proposed Carbondale to Crested Butte Trail. Critics in the Crystal Valley contend a trail could harm wildlife.

“Elk populations throughout the Roaring Fork and Crystal valleys are stable, but increasing human development and use has impacted winter range and calving habitat throughout the region,” Pitkin County’s trail plan said.

Tennenbaum said in an interview Thursday that the new study is much greater in scope than what’s been done in the Crystal Valley. It will look at the movement of the herd and pay particularly attention to calving.

The county uses the best available information to set seasonal closures to try to minimize disruption of elk and other wildlife.

The study will monitor movements of the elk herd and also help determine if recreational use of backcountry lands is affecting the herd.

Tennenbaum said CPW has been concerned for years about a low cow-calf ratio with the Avalanche elk herd. This study could help determine why that ratio is low.