CPW: Breckenridge gondola encroaches on wildlife preserve’s most sensitive time for moose, mule deer

The Breck Connect Gondola hovers over the Cucumber Gulch towards Breckenridge Ski Resort Wednesday, March 20. In the spring the "crown jewel," the town's open space program dedicated to wildlife during the most sensitive time of the year, is normally closed to the public.
Hugh Carey /

If Breckenridge’s open space has a crown jewel, it’s Cucumber Gulch, the most ecologically diverse property in town.

The 117-acre, town-owned wildlife preserve houses over 70 acres of rare wetlands so treasured, yet sensitive, that the area is off-limits every year from the end of April until the first Monday after the Fourth of July when town officials feel the busiest crowds tend to die down.

Breckenridge restricts hiking and other forms of human traffic from entering the gulch during this period because it’s an important time for the migrating birds, mule deer and moose in the gulch, said Scott Reid and Anne Murphy, who manage the town’s recreation and open space programs.

“It is our crown jewel and we take the protection and management of that preserve very seriously,” said Murphy, Breckenridge’s open space and trails manager.

However, Vail Resorts’ pursuit of the longest ski season in Colorado has created a new wrinkle in the town’s efforts to protect Cucumber Gulch with Breckenridge Ski Resort’s gondola operations running afoul of what state wildlife experts describe as the ideal “dark period.”

In a statement, Vail Resorts reaffirmed its commitment to protecting the wildlife preserve, but the gondola at Breckenridge Ski Resort cuts directly through the gulch while the forecast dates of operation and planned maintenance don’t exactly line up with what experts at Colorado Parks and Wildlife say should happen.

It’s takes coordination

With separate announcements at two of its properties this winter — Keystone Resort and Breckenridge Ski Resort — Vail Resorts has a shot at offering pass holders the longest ski season in Colorado, or close to it.

While Keystone will start competing for the earliest opening date next season, Breckenridge Ski Resort, about 15 miles away, wasn’t far removed from revealing its plans to run until the end of the Memorial Day weekend — starting this year and going forward — instead of shutting down in April.

On Feb. 6, White River National Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams granted Breckenridge Ski Resort’s request to extend its ski season in what’s been described as a fairly simple adjustment to the resort’s operating plan.

As the date approaches, district ranger Bill Jackson said, the Forest Service is expecting the resort to provide an exact closing date, which will likely depend on conditions. Jackson confirmed that Breckenridge town staff have reached out to the Forest Service about their concerns for Cucumber Gulch. However, the agency hasn’t been asked to intervene, nor does the town’s wildlife preserve fall within the Forest Service’s jurisdiction or oversight, he said.

Still, getting the Forest Service’s permission doesn’t necessarily mean a resort can pull off its longer season, Jackson added, explaining that Breckenridge Ski Resort is also expected “to coordinate with other applicable parties,” including working out specific issues like parking and the gondola service with the town.

Jackson compared the situation to an outfitter who guides people through the national forest but traverses private or county-owned land to get there. That outfitter might get Forest Service permission, Jackson said, but would still have to work out details with the property owners to make it happen.

The ‘dark period’

An existing operating agreement covering Breckenridge Ski Resort’s gondola in the winter gives the resort the option of running the gondola anytime a lift is moving on Peak 8, and the town has little control over that.

In another operating agreement focused on summer operations, however, the town has dictated a 45-day dark period in which the gondola is to remain closed to the public before it can resume operating again for the resort’s summertime activities, which resemble a small amusement park on the mountain.

The planned 45-day dark period for Breckenridge Ski Resort’s gondola is set to run May 1 to June 14 of this year, according to a statement provided by the company. More concerning, however, might be that the 45-day time frame came only after Vail Resorts failed to get town leaders to cut the window down to 30 days in negotiations that ended with resort COO John Buhler feeling “disappointed” they couldn’t work something out and promising “there’s going to be a lot of buses” going up and down Ski Hill Road as a result of the town’s refusal to budge on the 45 days.

Even at 45 days, the gondola, if it starts up in June, would still be running outside of the recommendations of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which “strongly supports maintaining the 45-day dark period where no gondola operation, maintenance, recreation or other human activity is permitted” from May 15 to June 30.

“We did not talk to CPW, but what we keep hearing is mid-May to mid-June is the critical calving period,” Buhler told town council. “Like I said, we’ve been operating in the time frame for the last six years and not had any information come to us that this has been harmful to the gulch.”

As Councilman Jeffrey Bergeron pointed out, for the last six years the resort has also had a 52-day period of non-operation.

Why go dark?

In a statement, Colorado Parks and Wildlife said that Cucumber Gulch serves as an important calving and fawning area for moose and mule deer. Moose and mule deer typically give birth in late May and early June and spend about a week looking for a suitable place to drop their young before doing so.

After their birth, the babies remain mostly immobile and hidden the first few weeks of life. At this point, the mothers will often leave for hours at a time in search of food. The newborns can be spooked by human disturbances and scared away from their hiding spots.

“This can lead to them being separated and orphaned, which significantly increases their chances of being attacked by predators or starving to death, as they are totally dependent (on their mothers) until late summer, early fall,” the agency said.

According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, once fawns and calves are about a month old — which typically happens in late June and early July — they are larger, stronger and more mobile. They also stay with their mothers a majority of the time and have a much better chance of survival.

Reid and Murphy said ski boots clanging on the gondola cabins’ floors, people clamoring trying to get reactions after spotting wildlife and shadows moving across the gulch because of the gondola are all thought to have impacts on the wildlife. Additionally, when the gondola isn’t operating, they see spikes in the number of birds and other animals.

A give and take

Representatives of Vail Resorts declined requests for an interview, either in person or over the phone, and instead issued a 240-word statement reaffirming the company’s commitment to the Cucumber Gulch Wildlife Preserve in response to the newspaper’s questions about the gondola.

“We take our charge as stewards of Cucumber Gulch very seriously, which is evidenced in the measurable improvements to water quality, vegetation and wetland growth that the resort and town have overseen in partnership since the construction of the gondola,” a statement from Vail Resorts read.

It added that company officials’ “conversations with the town” only reflect a “continued partnership” and Vail Resorts’ “commitment to developing sustainable best practices for operation of the gondola,” before reiterating the company’s excitement about Breckenridge’s extended season.

Additionally, the statement said Vail Resorts and the town will work together to offer a free bus service carrying guests from the transportation center by the base of the gondola to Breckenridge Ski Resort throughout the month of May.

This should achieve the 45-day public closure of the gondola, “as requested by the town,” according to Vail Resorts, which also confirmed in its statement that gondola operations for maintenance purposes will take place during the planned dark period.

That remains in contradiction to CPW’s recommendations. Murphy and Reid conceded that the town didn’t get everything it might have wanted, but they cited the spirit of trying to be “good partners” and believe the 45-day dark period, as it stands, still “accomplishes a lot of our goals.”

During the maintenance, Vail Resorts has promised to adhere to “best practices,” which Reid said will minimize wildlife disturbances by avoiding running the gondola during the most sensitive times of day for wildlife, namely the hours around dawn and dusk.

Even though the gondola is starting up earlier in June than state wildlife officials would prefer, Breckenridge Ski Resort said that resuming no earlier than June 14 is consistent with the resort’s summer operations for the past six years.

“We are confident that our management practices reflect a thoughtful approach to protecting Cucumber Gulch, and we look forward to the opportunity to gather further information regarding the health of the Gulch and its inhabitants in order to inform our joint decisions regarding future gondola operations,” the company’s statement concludes.

In addition to asking for a 30-day dark period, Vail Resorts and the town have floated jointly funding a study with the town to better gauge the gondola’s impacts on wildlife.


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