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Taking a walk with wildlife

Scott CondonAspen, CO Colorado
Wildlife biologist Jonathon Lowsky sets up a motion-triggered camera
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PITKIN COUNTY – Mike Hermes reached into the snow Thursday morning to collect evidence of a deadly ambush that occurred on a closed section of the Rio Grande Trail in the midvalley.Hermes, the trails director for the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, produced a lone red feather from a clump of black plumage. The feathers were plucked from a red-ringed blackbird that was probably captured by a hawk, according to Jonathon Lowsky, a wildlife biologist who is consulting for RFTA.As Lowsky described how the hawk likely perched in a tree and prepared its meal, it conjured images of someone patiently peeling the shell of a hard-boiled egg.The life-and-death struggle was one of several examples that wildlife abounds in a two-mile section of the Rio Grande Trail between Rock Bottom Ranch and the Catherine Bridge.The trail opened in late October to a fair amount of criticism from the environmental community. Critics said it would drive wildlife out of the old railroad corridor they had taken over in the decades since trains stopped passing by.RFTA responded by hiring Lowsky to devise a wildlife management plan. His recommendations to close the trail to humans from Dec. 1 until May 1 and to ban dogs year-round. The plan was adopted by RFTA’s board of directors.

Wildlife advocate Jim Duke, who lives across the Roaring Fork River from the trail, has repeatedly expressed concerns that the plan doesn’t go far enough. At a minimum, he wants the closure to start Nov. 1.Duke has asserted the presence of the trail has spooked deer, elk and other animals away from the area.The evidence on a tour with Hermes and Lowsky on Thursday suggested otherwise. Lowsky pointed out numerous tracks of deer and elk following the trail. In a one-mile stretch, ungulates had pounded six major crossings into the snow on the trail. In some cases, they crashed through the wood-pole fence off to one side of the trail.

Across the river, a few hundred yards from the trail, great blue herons could be seen building their ridiculously massive nests in cottonwood trees.Lowsky noted coyote tracks, scat from an unidentifiable source and signs of other small animals. In previous outings, he saw tracks of fox, long-tailed weasels, skunk and lots of small voles.He swapped the memory cards Thursday of two motion-triggered cameras that were erected roughly six weeks ago. One had captured 44 images, the other 34.One camera caught an image of a bobcat hightailing it down the trail. Pictures of deer and elk were plentiful.There were no pictures of unsuspecting humans. “There is not a single trespasser, which is great,” Lowsky said. “This has essentially extended the wildlife preserve because nobody is allowed back here whereas in the past folks that lived in this corridor use to walk here all the time.”

Duke agreed that wildlife numbers have increased as the winter has gone on. But he said Lowsky’s study needed a baseline of use before the trail opened to be meaningful.”There’s wildlife there but nowhere near what it used to be,” Duke said. “It’s a small fraction of what it previously was.”Eagles have been particularly scarce, he said. He saw six eagles in all of December, when he was laid up because of shoulder surgery. He used to see six in a single morning.Duke also believes wildlife patterns were disrupted in late fall. The trail was still open in November after some deer and elk were driven down from the high country by early snows. He thinks some ungulates refused to cross the trail because of the presence of humans.Lowsky said Duke was correct that baseline information would have been useful.

“In a perfect world I would have loved to study (the area) for 10 years before they built the trail,” Lowsky said. “All I can say is this very first winter of the trail, the species that people seem most concerned about – the deer and the elk – are using the trail tremendously.”Wildlife will be affected by the trail to a greater degree during summer months, according to Lowsky. Songbirds like the blue-gray gnat catcher, Virginia’s warbler and plumbeous vireo “are probably going to adjust their home ranges” to distance themselves from the trail, he said.But in his opinion, no populations of any animals will be threatened by the trail.”If a trail is going to actively and significantly impact wildlife habitat in such a way as to disrupt the populations, then I’m going to fight it,” Lowsky said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com


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