Forest Service unveils proposal to help beleaguered elk herd
HOW TO COMMENT
Written comments on the proposed special order must be submitted via mail, fax, electronically, or in person (Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., excluding holidays) to: Kevin Warner, District Ranger, c/o Phil Nyland, PO Box 309, 620 Main Street, Carbondale, Colorado 81623-0309; FAX: (970) 963-1012. Electronic comments including attachments can be submitted to https://cara.ecosystem-management.org/Public//CommentInput?Project=57661
Comments will be accepted any time, but are most helpful if submitted prior to March 16.
The U.S. Forest Service has decided it must act sooner than later to try to spur recovery of the Aspen-area elk population.
The White River National Forest opened a public comment period Tuesday on a proposal to extend the seasonal closure of the popular Government Trail by one week. The trail is currently closed May 15 through June 20. This proposal would extend the closure through June 27.
One week might not sound like a lot, but it can be a critical period for calves, according to wildlife officials. They need that time to nurse and increase their stability and mobility before encountering possible human disturbance.
“We think a week longer closure would make a difference,” said Phil Nyland, biologist with the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District. “We feel the time is now.”
Time is critical because research by Colorado Parks and Wildlife indicates that the survival of calves through their first year has declined about 33 percent over the past decade. The lower Burnt Mountain area has a long history as a prime elk calving area.
“It’s one of our highest production areas,” said Aspen District Wildlife Manager Kurtis Tesch.
Recognizing the importance of Burnt Mountain, CPW, the Forest Service, Snowmass Village, Pitkin County and Aspen Skiing Co. teamed to agree to a seasonal closure beginning in 1993.
“Compliance is getting better, I can say that,” Tesch said.
The violations that occur are typically right before the opening, Nyland said.
“People have the summer itch and they see other trails being used,” he said.
Elk calves in western Colorado are typically born in late May through early June. Newborn calves spend their first few weeks hiding motionless while their mothers feed. For an additional period of roughly 45 days, elk calves follow their mothers, nurse and pack on calories essential for their stability and mobility.
“The need for solitude from humans and dogs for calving elk cannot be overstated,” Tesch said.
Pregnancy hasn’t been a problem for elk in the Avalanche herd, which generally stays south of Highway 82. The problem has been survival rates of juveniles. CPW is undertaking a six-year study to determine why rates are declining. Pregnant cows are captured and a device is implanted when they are giving birth. Wildlife officers go to the scene and places tracking devices on calves so they can be tracked. If they die, officers go to the site to try to determine the cause of death.
Human disturbance can separate cows and calves. Calves may be unable to nurse or they may be injured trying to follow their moms. They can also be abandoned in extreme cases of disturbance.
Recent research shows a hiker or horseback rider can displace elk an average of 550 while mountain bikers can displace elk with an average of 650 meters, according to the Forest Service.
“One violation is not okay,” Tesch said.
While the study on juvenile survival rates is anticipated to be extremely valuable, the Forest Service concluded, “we can’t wait another five or six years to make a change,” Nyland said.
CPW officials have said if the current trend of juvenile mortality continues, the herd could be compromised, Nyland said.
The public land management agencies and Aspen Skiing Co. discussed applying the extended closure to a broader area, including the Tom Blake Trail, which parallels Government Trail, and trails used in Skico’s summer operations.
“If we could get a blanket closure on all trails, that would be good,” Tesch said. But a compromise was reached to apply the longer closure to an extensive area and allow other trails to open on June 21, he said.
The May 15 through June 27 restrictions will apply to Government Trail, Anaerobic Nightmare and Sugar Trail. The closure boundary will extend uphill from Government Trail under the Two Creek chairlift, then run along the eastern border of the Elk Camp section of Snowmass Ski Area, excluding Skico’s summer hiking and biking trails.
A smaller area that includes Tom Blake hiking and equestrian, Sequel and Valhalla will remain closed May 15 through June 20.
The Forest Service notice on the proposed extended closure of Government Trail noted that several alternatives exist for hikers and mountain bikers. Sky Mountain Park, for example, opens May 16 as do numerous trails further downvalley.
More information on the proposed extension of the closure can be found at https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=57661.
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