Mother Nature, development conspire to make it tougher on big game |

Mother Nature, development conspire to make it tougher on big game

Elk graze along Highway 82 south of Glenwood Springs near Aspen Glen recently. (Mark Fox/The Aspen Times)

Mother Nature and humans might unintentionally conspire to make it tougher for deer and elk to survive this winter.The early-season snowpack is already 25 percent higher than average in the Roaring Fork Basin and, if it remains high, could make it difficult for big game to find enough to eat, according to state wildlife officials. At the same time that nature is putting additional pressure on the beasts, development is chewing up winter range – land that can sustain the large numbers of deer and elk in the valley.”We are very concerned about the loss of winter range in the Roaring Fork Valley,” said Colorado Division of Wildlife spokesman Randy Hampton. “Now we need that winter range. Where those critters go is now a much bigger issue for the Division of Wildlife” because of high snow amounts.The snowpack has been average or below for about the last five years in the valley and much of Colorado. Mild winters mean easy pickings for deer and elk because food is more accessible.When heavy snow blankets their habitat, more animals crowd onto smaller pieces of land, which may not be able to sustain them. There is high mortality among fawns and older animals, and their reproductive rates might drop because of the stress, Hampton said.Kevin Wright has witnessed the loss of winter range for 21 years as a wildlife officer between Carbondale and Aspen. “I think we’re in a constant decline of winter range because of development,” he said.

Some public lands continue to provide excellent winter range for elk, Wright said. South-facing slopes in places like Light Hill in Old Snowmass, the Crown in El Jebel and Holgate Mesa outside of Carbondale offer a smorgasbord of oak brush and sagebrush, serviceberry, chokecherry and mountain mahogany.But private land that’s also provided historical winter range is disappearing, Wright said. It’s against wildlife division policy to discuss specific pieces of property, but Wright said many rural subdivisions have been developed in recent years in prime elk and bear habitat. The same lands on south-facing slopes and in the valley floor that are popular with the animals during winters are popular with homebuilders.The Bair Chase golf project between Carbondale and Glenwood Springs seems, at first glance, like a poster child for development chewing up winter range. A splinter group of a larger herd has taken up residence on the old ranch in recent winters and nibbled on the grass and other vegetation that protruded through the snow.This year the group found something wrong at its winter home. Heavy equipment stripped the pastures and natural grasslands bare in preparation of a golf course. The elk congregated along the old railroad corridor, a thin ribbon that provided the only vegetation for them to eat.Bair Chase is highly visible along Highway 82 and draws the attention of people concerned about their welfare, wildlife division officials conceded. But the old ranch and new golf project isn’t the prime winter range that the wildlife division wants to preserve.Flat land on valley floors rarely makes for the best winter range because it gets covered in heavy snow years, Hampton explained. Land where bushes poke through and keep snow off the ground vegetation provides better winter range.

Elk flock to golf courses in low snow years because of easy access to grass.”There’s better habitat out there,” Hampton said. “Elk might have been utilizing that property because there hasn’t been a lot of snow in recent years.”Wright noted: “Elk are real opportunists.” Those that adapt more easily to civilization flock to places like golf courses in low snow years. In heavy snow years, they will leave if they cannot find enough food.But the loss of winter range on private lands to development has wildlife officials concerned about whether there is enough winter range remaining to sustain deer and elk herds in heavy snow years.Elk in the Roaring Fork Valley are divided into a herd that stays to the southwest side of Highway 82, the Avalanche Creek herd, and the northeast side of the highway, the Fryingpan herd, Hampton said.The population of the Avalanche Creek herd is estimated at 3,300. The wildlife division believes that’s a good number for the available habitat.

The Fryingpan herd is estimated at 5,600, with the objective at about that same level.When habitat is developed, the number of animals that can be sustained shrinks. Then the wildlife division must adjust the objective for the size of the herd. When the objective shrinks, the wildlife division uses tools like increased hunting to bring numbers down.The division is in the process of estimating the size of deer and elk herds and comparing them to sustainable habitat. Officials will use helicopters to count deer and elk in the Roaring Fork Valley the week of Dec. 12.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is

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