Next trail link will be bad news for wildlife |

Next trail link will be bad news for wildlife

The Rio Grande railroad tracks run next to the Roaring Fork River. (Mark Fox/The Aspen Times)

A big addition for hikers and bikers could be a big loss for deer, elk, bobcat and other wildlife when the next section of a pedestrian trail gets added to the old railroad corridor next year.The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s plan to build 4.5 miles of trail between Catherine Bridge and Hooks Lane inevitably and unintentionally produces a clash between cherished values of providing trails and protecting wildlife habitat.This clash doesn’t have a villain. RFTA is doing what constituents have demanded. This link will complete the trail from Aspen to Carbondale. The agency is working toward the goal of building the trail to Glenwood Springs.Wildlife officials and landowners are simply noting that trail construction brings consequences.”You put a trail in there, and it’s definitely going to affect the animals,” said John Groves, Carbondale district wildlife manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife.”Everybody likes trails. I think we have to be careful of the impact in that riparian area,” added Kevin Wright, a state wildlife officer in the Roaring Fork Valley for 21 years. The presence of a trail, he said, has the potential to drive out wildlife species that are less tolerant of humans.The only place a trail can be built in part of that section of the rail corridor is between the steep cliffs at the base of the Crown and the drop-off to the Roaring Fork River. RFTA’s plan is to begin construction next summer.Mike Hermes, who heads RFTA’s trail construction, said he is well aware of the heavy wildlife use in that area. “You see just about everything,” he said, noting he’s personally seen bear and turkey tracks. RFTA certainly doesn’t want to ruin the very qualities that make that area attractive by building a trail, he said.

Trail pierces wildlife sanctuaryThe rail corridor in that section pierces public and private lands that combine to provide a wildlife sanctuary. To the south is the Crown, rolling hills and natural pastures of Bureau of Land Management property that includes critical winter range for deer and elk.On the north along about one mile of the corridor is Rock Bottom Ranch, 115 acres filled with cottonwood trees, marshes and ponds and the meandering Roaring Fork River. The Aspen Center for Environmental Studies acquired it in 1999 to provide wildlife habitat and environmental education. ACES’ operation includes old-fashioned, organic ranching techniques. Rock Bottom provides the easiest access to the river for big game wintering on the Crown. By February, when snow typically gets deeper, elk start spending more time right on the railroad right of way, said Matthew Earley Coen, land manager and co-director of Rock Bottom Ranch with his wife, Andrea.Currently the rail corridor gets little use from Rock Bottom Ranch to Catherine Bridge because there is no established trail. Railroad ties make it too bumpy for decent cycling. Weeds make summer travel difficult. It’s also one of the few stretches of corridor that isn’t near a road, golf course or other development.The absence of trains for the past few decades has made that stretch a haven for wildlife.During five years of living at the ranch, Coen has also seen bobcats, mountain lion tracks, ermine, coyote and rabbits on and alongside the corridor. Beaver have dammed themselves a paradise in the river bottomlands adjacent to where the trail will go. A spring-fed pond that stayed ice-free even during this bitter December provided a vital refuge for a variety of ducks.In the spring, a single, towering tree is home to 13 blue heron nests at the ranch. The trail will be about 300 yards from the nest, the minimum Coen feels the birds will tolerate and still establish their rookery.Paradise lost?

Coen acknowledged the trail will “be a great community asset,” but wildlife will pay a price. The Basalt-based Roaring Fork Conservancy shares the concerns, according to executive director Rick Lofaro.”It’s definitely going to have some kind of impact,” Coen said. For example, ducks will be spooked from the pond whenever someone walks along the trail. The Coens have undertaken a wetlands restoration project to provide an alternative for the flushed fowl.Nevertheless, Coen cringes at the thought of how regular use of a trail by humans could alter habits of wildlife in an area that’s served as a sanctuary.”I hate to be selfish, but it’s hard to share,” Coen said.Several homeowners live on the north side of the river, opposite from where the trail will be, between Rock Bottom and Catherine Bridge. Jim Duke, who has lived there for almost 20 years, looks out his windows and sees all the wildlife Coen listed and more. There are red fox, martens, minks, weasels and horned owls. “Several bald eagles are working the river” virtually every morning of the winter, he said.Duke noted that the Crown is mostly dry, with the exception of a few scattered cow ponds, so the wildlife uses game trails for access to the river. While Rock Bottom is a sanctuary, the entire secluded corridor from Rock Bottom to the bridge gets heavy wildlife use, Duke said. No roads or homes line the corridor in that stretch of two miles or so.Unlike some of his neighbors, Duke said he likes the idea of a trail. He said effects of a trail across the river can be mitigated for homeowners with trees and strategically placed vegetation. Animals aren’t so lucky, he said, because mitigation probably isn’t possible for them.Conditions will be discussed

RFTA will meet with ACES, Roaring Fork Conservancy and the state wildlife division in February to discuss how to minimize the effects on wildlife during trail construction and use.One issue on the table will be dogs. Wright said dogs cause stress to deer and elk even when they are leashed. And, he said, compliance with leash laws is never 100 percent.Coen said even infrequent use of the corridor as it exists – with railroad ties, summer weeds and no established trail – has generated dog problems. Rock Bottom Ranch has free-range chickens, which have been attacked four times in four years.”I would be for banning dogs all the time,” said Coen.RFTA’s Hermes said all issues will be on the table.Tom Cardamone, the longtime director of ACES, said he believes Rock Bottom Ranch can still thrive as a wildlife sanctuary even after the trail construction. Cardamone said he was aware of the potential of the trail when ACES acquired Rock Bottom. He spent 14 years on the Pitkin County Trails and Open Space program’s board of directors and helped expand the trail on the railroad corridor in Pitkin County.”We regard it as a valleywide effort to create this pedestrian corridor and don’t want to stand in the way of it, but want to make it compatible with wildlife,” he said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is

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