New cameras give better look at wildlife activity on stretch of Rio Grande Trail

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Courtesy of Jonathan Lowsky/RFTAA cow elk with calf climb up the bank along the Roaring Fork River. Their movement triggered a motion-detecting camera used to monitor wildlife along the Rio Grande Trail corridor in the midvalley.

BASALT – Wildlife officials are getting a much clearer picture this year of the type of animals prowling the Rio Grande Trail corridor in the midvalley and at what frequency.

Jonathan Lowsky, a wildlife biologist working as a consultant to the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, has seen numerous pictures in the past seven months of everything from small mammals to ungulates to predators such as bobcats, coyotes and bruins.

“I’m getting a lot more pictures of bears this year,” he said.

Lowsky and RFTA replaced three old motion-sensor cameras with three higher-tech models in February. The investment has paid dividends in Lowksy’s efforts to monitor wildlife in the section of trail between Rock Bottom Ranch and Catherine Bridge – a stretch roughly 6 miles west of Basalt and 4 miles east of Carbondale. RFTA, seeking to gauge if the trail is detrimental to wildlife, hired Lowsky.

The old cameras required a longer time to snap a photo after an animal’s motion triggered it. Lowsky ended up with a lot of “empty frames,” he said. “These [new cameras] are much quicker.”

They also work on infrared light at night so they don’t require a flash and thus don’t spook wildlife.

The new cameras have captured images of raccoons for the first time during the monitoring. There are pictures of an elk cow with a calf climbing the bank after apparently getting a drink from the Roaring Fork River. A bushy coyote appears to be whirling around to look behind it at the sound of the camera. There are pictures of bears lumbering down the corridor and one of a bear apparently sniffing the grass in search of a snack.

Many of the images were captured at night or early in the morning, before there is heavy trail use.

RFTA agreed, when it constructed that section of trail earlier this decade, that it would close the 2-mile section between Catherine and Rock Bottom from Dec. 1 through April 30 to minimize disruption to wildlife during winters. The use of the corridor by deer, elk and mountain lions increases during the winter months, said Lowsky, principal in a firm called Colorado Wildlife Science LLC.

RFTA’s board of directors made a decision nearly two years ago to monitor the 2-mile section of trail for three years to gauge wildlife usage before contemplating any possible changes to its winter restrictions. Some parties have called for longer restrictions; others want to lift the winter ban.

Lowsky has gone on record as crediting RFTA for the winter closure because it essentially creates a wildlife refuge. Before the trail was built, the corridor was open to human use during the period it is now closed.

Lowsky said Friday that the evidence he has seen so far is that “things are really good” as far as wildlife use of the corridor.

“The trail has had some impact on wildlife, but the animals that I would expect to be there are, indeed, there,” he said.

There is even good news on the heron front. It was believed that eagles gobbled all eggs and chicks in several heron nests this spring, just as they did last year. Lowsky said the eagles missed one nest and two chicks were successfully fledged. That shows the area can be a successful rookery despite the presence of the trail.