Study aims to provide helping hands to deer, elk and bighorn sheep in Roaring Fork Valley

Wildlife Biodiversity Project takes a big-picture look at nearly 1 million acres in the Roaring Fork watershed

A bull elk surrounded by cows forage in the Roaring Fork Valley backcountry.
Will Cardamone/Courtesy photo

The number of deer, elk and bighorn sheep is falling in the Roaring Fork Valley but a relatively new nonprofit organization is hoping to end the trend.

The Watershed Biodiversity Initiative is undertaking an ambitious project to help identify large-scale swathes of land that provide the best habitat within the nearly 1 million acre Roaring Fork watershed and the critical connections among the swathes.

The organization was founded by former Aspen Center for Environmental Studies executive director Tom Cardamone in March 2018. It launched what is known as the Roaring Fork Watershed Biodiversity and Connectivity Study in December of that year and is getting close to releasing the results to policy makers, public lands managers, conservationists and interested public later this winter.

Cardamone said he believes the level of detail of this study is unprecedented. Ten layers of data are being collected — from the biodiversity values of specific plots to human activity areas to condition of forage.

“The maps we are producing will show where the animals are and where they could be,” Cardamone said.

The goal is for the maps to be used by policy makers and the community-at-large to determine what properties should be conserved and, in some cases, restored to prime habitat. The city of Aspen won’t be restored to a sage flat, for example, but the map could identify places where conservation efforts should be focused.

The Roaring Fork Valley is a community with lots of diverse and sometimes competing interests. But Cardamone believes most people share a key interest.

“We’re all concerned about wildlife,” he said. “I think that the trends with elk, deer and bighorn sheep are concerning. Fortunately, we’re in this incredible watershed to begin with.”

This image shows the Roaring Fork watershed, an area that includes the Fryingpan and Crystal River drainages and totals about 928,000 acres.
Watershed Biodiversity Initiative/courtesy image

The Watershed Biodiversity Initiative teamed with several partners to undertake the effort, including Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Aspen Valley Land Trust, Aspen Global Change Institute and Roaring Fork Conservancy.

Research scientists from the Colorado Natural Heritage Program undertook the fieldwork, which included lots of confirming data collected about the land. Cardamone said he has accompanied the scientists on trips to specific plots of ground where they literally crawl on hands and knees to assess conditions. The study plots range across all the primary drainages, elevations and habitat types.

“They see if the animals have been there and what they’re eating,” he said.

The plots are defined with a unique light reflectance “fingerprint” detectable by satellites.

“Next, computers were trained to search for these fingerprints across the watershed,” according to Watershed Biodiversity Project material. “Data collected on the ground — under a microscope — was used to inform satellite imagery — under a telescope — to characterize the ecological condition of the watershed’s 928,000 acres.”

Multiple data layers are being developed and layered together to produce a detailed set of maps that show the land that is likely the highest priority for conservation.

Representatives of the partners are “test driving” the maps to make sure they answer the most likely questions people will have. The test drive will likely take four to six weeks, leading to a release in January or February.

Cardamone said he’s already learned many interesting tidbits while test-driving. For example, Thursday he was looking at a map that shows plots where the snow level is low enough in three years out of 10 to create good winter range for deer and elk. Models project terrain where climate change could produce good winter range on five out of 10 years.

Other data identifies where elk regularly cross Highway 82. Cardamone envisions using that to plot where wildlife crossings would be effective or, given the high cost of overpass crossings, where it would be effective to install infrared detection systems where a sign flashes when the system detects the presence of animals.

Once the maps and study data are released, it is his dream that the community gets together and determines through give and take what properties should be preserved.

For more on the initiative, go to its website at