Rio Grande Trail closure stumps group | AspenTimes.com

Rio Grande Trail closure stumps group

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CARBONDALE ” Controversy over a wildlife closure on a midvalley section of the Rio Grande Trail proved too tough for a citizens’ commission to resolve Thursday night.

A two-mile stretch of the trail in the midvalley, between Rock Bottom Ranch and Catherine Store bridge, is closed for five months each year to benefit wildlife. Some conservationists and residents of the neighborhood claim the closure needs to be extended to eight months per year.

An advisory arm of the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority took up the issue Thursday night, but decided after 90 minutes of deliberations not to make a recommendation. Instead it forwarded the issue to RFTA’s board of directors. The directors will debate the issue early in 2008, according to RFTA staff.

While the citizens’ commission didn’t make any formal decision, about half of the eight members expressed opinions.

“We have 40 miles of bike path. Why can’t we have [one section] for wildlife?” asked commission member Linda Vidal.

Another member, George Trantow, said there was no evidence that trail use has a detrimental effect on wildlife. He opposed any extension of the closure.

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Dale Will and Gary Tennenbaum, commission members who also are on the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails staff, said a decision couldn’t be made solely based on wildlife needs. “The human aspect of this has to be included in the equation,” said Tennenbaum.

While conservationists and residents of the area say the trail harms wildlife habitat, a RFTA consultant found no evidence to back their claims. Wildlife biologist Jonathan Lowsky reported that his monitoring last winter and spring showed heavy use of the area by deer and elk. The trail is closed from Dec. 1 until May.

“Once the snow was on the trail, it was being used as a highway” by ungulates, he said.

Motion-triggered cameras captured bobcat, wild turkey, red fox and numerous other critters sauntering down the trail. “From Dec. 1, that area has essentially become a nature preserve,” said Lowsky.

The one gray area he identified was the effect of the trail on great blue herons. Heron nests in cottonwood trees on Rock Bottom Ranch were abandoned by the birds in mid-May, within two weeks of when the trail opened, Lowsky said.

Neighbors claimed that was too much of a coincidence. However, Lowsky said other factors like a wind storm, trail maintenance earlier in the spring, ranch work, trespassing by anglers on the ranch and, ironically, wildlife conservation classes at Rock Bottom also could have played a role. Rock Bottom Ranch is a sanctuary and outdoor education center owned by the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.

“I don’t think it’s the trail alone that could have caused this,” Lowsky said of the herons abandoning their nests. He said the trail might not be a factor at all.

Nevertheless, he advised RFTA to error on the side of caution and extend the closure by three months until July 31 ” at least for one year. That would give the herons time to habituate to human activity, he said.

“If it is determined that the July 31 closure date is not acceptable to the RFTA board, at the very minimum a closure to June 1 for the 2008 breeding season should be initiated …,” Lowsky wrote in his report.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife wants the trail closure to start on Nov. 15 and extend through May. David Merritt, a member of RFTA’s Covenant Enforcement Commission, said he wanted to adopt the wildlife division’s recommendation.

He was overruled, with the commission voting 7-1 not to make a recommendation. Commission member Arnie Mordkin successfully argued that it was outside the commission’s scope of responsibilities to make a recommendation on the closure.

A frustrated Trantow questioned why the board wasted 90 minutes discussing the issue if it wasn’t going to act. No one had an answer.