Sky Mountain Park hunt keeps elk on the move

Annual limited hunt runs Wednesday through Sunday in area between Snowmass Village and Aspen

A bull elk watches over the herd near Owl Creek Road in Snowmass on Monday, Sept. 22, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Hunting in Sky Mountain Park is only allowed for a few days a year at the tail end of the fourth rifle season for a lucky handful of elk hunters. This year’s hunt kicks off Wednesday and wraps Sunday; about 1,200 acres of the park will close to public access, including the Cozyline, Airline, Ditchline and Skyline Ridge trails.

It’s been that way since 2014, when the hunt started as a collaboration between Pitkin County Open Space and Trails and Colorado Parks and Wildlife to curb the “refuge effect,” which happens when a lack of natural predators allows elk and other animals to hang out and munch on the leaves and grasses in one spot until the branches and fields are completely bare.

And the hunt is likely to continue in the future, according to the updated Sky Mountain Park management plan that open space planners have been developing for months. That plan is nearing the adoption finish line, pending some final approvals in the coming weeks.

Elk graze next to Owl Creek Road after a recent snowfall on Tuesday, May 11, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

“It just seems to work. … Overall, the habitat is showing improvement,” said Gary Tennenbaum, the director of Pitkin County Open Space and Trails. “If this is a piece of that puzzle that’s doing it, that’ll be great.”

The point isn’t to control elk population numbers with the harvest so much as it is to move the herds around by creating pressure that doesn’t otherwise exist, Tennenbaum said. There may be the occasional mountain lion, sure, but that isn’t enough to curb the refuge effect and the tendency for elk to return to those same safe spots year after year.

“They remember that, and they pass that down, and they’re smarter than you think, and so they know places they can go that don’t have any hunting, and they feel safe,” Tennenbaum said.

It’s easy to spot the overgrazing that happens as a result because the trees and the bushes in one area will start to look “like lollipops” and the grasses will get foraged down to the nub, Tennenbaum said.

The habitat may look like a Dr. Seuss book, but it isn’t ideal for long-term vitality. So open space and wildlife planners combine restoration efforts with a deterrent aimed at preventing the overgrazing in the first place.

It’s hardly the only way that open space planners maintain the wildlife habitat of the park; there are numerous completed and ongoing restoration projects, according to the updated management plan.

“We’ve done some significant habitat improvement projects up there that have improved the habitat for the elk. … It’s not enough to really have them hang out there for the entire winter,” Tennenbaum said.

Though the hunt runs for only a handful of days each year, the timing — right when elk are migrating to the park at the tail end of the fourth rifle season — seems to be just right to nudge the elk into moving around.

The limited number of hunters means the hunt doesn’t make much of a negative dent in local elk populations: Between one and three elk are harvested during the annual hunt, according to data provided by Janet Urquhart, the planning and outreach specialist for Pitkin County Open Space and Trails. The hunt doesn’t add any additional tags to the annual allotment; rather, hunters enter for the opportunity to use their tags to harvest within the park.

In fact, “the goal is that it’ll impact them positively” through those dispersal and habitat restoration efforts, said Kurtis Tesch, Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s district wildlife manager for the upper Roaring Fork Valley.

(Researchers affiliated with Colorado Parks and Wildlife are currently in the midst of a multiyear study of birth rates and herd recruitment to understand why fewer elk calves are making into some elk herds; some elk that roam Sky Mountain Park were identified for that study this spring.)

The hunt also offers a unique and accessible opportunity for hunters who win the lottery.

Lottery participation varies year-to-year: there were 57 entrants this year, up significantly from a low of just 12 entrants in 2020 but not quite as high as the 100 hunters who entered in 2019, according to the updated management plan. But overall, Tennenbaum considers it a competitive lottery in part due to the rarity of the experience.

“We get a lot of people that love the chance to hunt there,” Tennenbaum said. “It’s unique, it’s a very unique experience, because … even though it’s not a big area, you only know five other people might be there and I think so far, a lot of people have really enjoyed it.”

The accessibility of the park also makes it primed for potential as a place to introduce more people from different backgrounds and demographics to hunting.

“Since it’s an easy, accessible area (and) there’s minimal tags available, it’s a pretty controlled environment,” Tesch said. “I brought it up, as, you know, offering up hunts for youth or … underrepresented groups, whatever that may be just to give them an opportunity in a nice, easy, controlled environment.”

The updated management plan for the park includes a proposed step to review Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s recommendations for “a weighted lottery that prioritizes selection of youths, veterans and/or other under-served, under-represented groups.” That isn’t finalized yet, Tesch said, but creating more opportunities like it to hunt in an accessible environment like Sky Mountain Park could have an impact on participation in the opportunity.

“The age of hunters is increasing — I feel like we’re losing touch with our youth and getting them outside and getting them into those recreation opportunities,” Tesch said. “There are so many recreation opportunities out there. I feel that this is just one way to introduce hunting to some of these folks without making it too difficult on them or their parents who are obviously going to be going with them, so you know, it’s exposure.”


During the hunt, about 1200 acres in the heart of the park will be closed to public use. That includes the Cozyline, Airline, Skyline Ridge and Ditchline trails; closure signs will be posted.

Viewline, Deadline, Highline and Lowline will remain open through the hunt; most trails in the park close for the season Dec. 1, except for Highline and Lowline, which stay open year-round.