Longer closure on the Rio Grande? | AspenTimes.com

Longer closure on the Rio Grande?

Neighbors feel that a new section of trail along the Roaring Fork River might have disturbed great blue herons nesting nearby. (Kara K. Pearson/Post Independent file)

The board in charge of the valley’s buses and trails systems will be talking turkey about herons at the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority meeting June 14.That’s when a group of residents will request additional closure time for a controversial downvalley section of the Rio Grande Trail.But there may not be a decision imminent in the matter, the agency’s CEO, Dan Blankenship, said this week, because “there is some time to deliberate” over whether to change the dates of closure from a point below Hooks Bridge near Rock Bottom Ranch to the Catherine Store Road bridge because of wildlife considerations.”We have time,” Blankenship said, “because the herons are already gone for this season,” referring to last month’s departure of great blue herons occupying nests in the cottonwood trees along one stretch of the trail.A group of landowners who live near the trail, and who opposed the paving of the $1.2 million segment of trail and its opening to general use last year, are expected to ask the RFTA board to expand the closure times to limit disturbance to the herons and other wildlife that use the area.Under current rules, the trail segment is closed from Dec. 1 through May 1 for wildlife-related reasons.Herons that had been nesting in cottonwoods along the trail, between Rock Bottom Ranch and the Catherine bridge, disappeared last month, in what wildlife officials call an “abandonment” of the heronry.Area residents Jim Duke and Shep and Mary Harris brought the disappearance of the birds to the attention of RFTA officials in mid-May. They said the nests in trees along the Roaring Fork River were abandoned about a week after the trail opened May 1, and Duke said the trail should remain closed longer each spring to give the herons a chance to hatch their eggs and raise their young.Mary Harris said this week that she and others have checked with wildlife specialists and plan to have a list of recommendations for the RFTA board to consider. Many of the recommendations, she said, have to do with closure of the trail earlier in the fall and leaving it closed later in the spring to give the herons more time to hatch and teach their young.Delia Malone, a wildlife biologist who has studied this section of the trail, said this week that “if I had my druthers” the trail would be closed from October through July every year. Conceding that is not likely to happen, she said the trial should be closed from mid-October until mid-July to provide a broad list of wildlife with sufficient time for migration, breeding, raising of young and – in the case of birds – molting.Wildlife expert Jonathan Lowsky, who is under contract for RFTA and developed the trail management plan now in use, said he has made his own recommendations regarding changes to the trail’s management through the controversial segment.But he would not reveal those recommendations until the board meeting gets under way Thursday, he said.He noted that the herons had abandoned only one of the two “colonies” between Rock Bottom Ranch and Catherine bridge, and that nests in the eastern colony are still occupied. He maintained that there are other factors that might have caused the abandonment, ranging from an extreme storm three days before the abandonment that knocked nests out of some trees, to an increasing population of mink and raccoons in the area, both of which prey on bird eggs.”Can we say it was the trail that caused it?” he asked. “No.”But he conceded the opening of the trail “may have been a factor,” and that it may have been the final factor among many.He said that heronries are known to last between seven and 20 years in general, and since this one has been in use since around 1980, “It may just be that that heronry has simply run its course.”Still, he said, herons have been known to repopulate rookeries after abandoning them for a year, as happened once before to the Rock Bottom heronry.The RFTA board meeting begins at 8:30 a.m. at Carbondale Town Hall, and the public is welcome to attend.John Colson’s e-mail address is jcolson@aspentimes.com

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