Rio Grande Trail closure remains in place
CARBONDALE ” After months of fussing and fighting over a midvalley trail’s potential impacts on wildlife, the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority decided Thursday to leave a seasonal closure as is and monitor the results.
A two-mile stretch of the Rio Grande Trail between Rock Bottom Ranch and Catherine Bridge is closed from Dec. 1 to April 30 so human users don’t disturb wildlife in the area. The trail in that section was constructed in fall 2006 and immediately proved popular with cyclists and pedestrians.
Critics want the closure extended later into the spring. Some area residents claim trail use flushed blue herons from their nests along the corridor in May, before the birds’ eggs hatched.
The issue came to a head Thursday at the monthly meeting of RFTA’s board of directors in Carbondale. One faction of the board wanted the closure extended for one month so trail use wouldn’t interfere with heron nesting; another faction preferred opening the trail year-round.
Neither side secured enough votes to alter the existing seasonal closure. RFTA’s rules require a “super majority” to change policy. RFTA has eight voting jurisdictions; six votes are required to change policy. The sides were deadlocked 3-3 on Thursday.
The default decision to keep the existing closure in place went against recommendations from wildlife experts. The Colorado Division of Wildlife previously urged RFTA to begin the trail closure earlier and end it later. Wildlife officers wanted the closure to run from Nov. 15 until the end of May.
RFTA’s own consultant, wildlife biologist Jonathan Lowsky, recommended extending the closure to July 31 for one year to see how it affected the heron colony. If the RFTA board felt that was too extreme, Lowsky recommended a minimum closure date of June 1 on a trial basis.
Lowsky was hired by RFTA to monitor wildlife use along the corridor after the trail opened. He found ample signs of activity through tracks in the snow and motion-triggered cameras.
“There are a ton of deer and elk using the trail,” he said. He also saw signs of a variety of animals, including coyotes, bobcats, skunks, weasels and wild turkeys.
Lowsky confirmed citizens’ claims that several nests near Rock Bottom Ranch were abandoned in May. Trail use might or might not have contributed to the birds flying the coop.
To be safe, he recommended extending the closure through May to see if the herons return. Once their eggs hatch, they aren’t as high of flight risks. They could get habituated to people and not be as likely to leave in future years, he said.
Tom Cardamone, the longtime director of the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, which owns Rock Bottom Ranch, said the organization is working to enhance the wildlife habitat there. However, he was neutral on whether the trail closure should be extended. He opposed shortening or eliminating it, and credited the community for its concerns over wildlife.
Cardamone cautioned against focusing on one species. “Comings and goings of herons could make us crazy,” he said.
Like the RFTA directors, members of the audience were divided by the issue. George Trantow of Willits said he wants the closure shortened, even if it means the herons are sacrificial lambs of sorts. He noted that Lowsky reported that herons aren’t threatened and have ample habitat in the valley.
Jacque Whitsitt of Basalt said there is “intense competition” for riparian areas between humans and wildlife and humans “are winning by a landslide.” She urged keeping the five-month closure in place for the benefit of wildlife.
“I don’t want to see it opened up just because I want to use it,” she said.
RFTA board member Bruce Christensen said it is incomprehensible to him that there is a high level of concern over a two-mile stretch of trail when there is wildlife habitat “that’s been absolutely destroyed” on a larger scale by development throughout the valley.
“I think we ought to look at extending the season that it’s open rather than when it’s closed,” he said.
Board members Dorothea Farris and Gary Tennenbaum also opposed extending the closure.
Board member Frank Breslin countered that people cannot be allowed to “pick and choose” their science and use it when it is convenient. He supported the extended closure to see if herons would benefit.
He claimed it was hypocrisy to decide that wildlife could be sacrificed when it conflicts with the desire to ride our bicycles. RFTA must hold itself to a higher standard, Breslin said.
He was joined by Russ Criswell and J.E. DeVilbiss in support of extending the closure.
But the debate was for naught. The deadlock simply meant the closure from Dec. 1 through April 30 remains in place.
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