Wildlife advocates concerned about management of Aspen-area public lands

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Trails on the Crown were riding well Saturday and were still rimmed by wildflowers. The area opens to motorized and mechanized uses on April 15. Some wildlife advocates want the spring closure extended.
Scott Condon/The Aspen Times |

A group of Aspen-area residents is demanding that public land management policies in the Roaring Fork Valley be scrutinized to ensure recreation isn’t trumping wildlife preservation.

Holly McLain said Citizens For Responsible Open Space is particularly concerned about the Crown, 9,100 acres of rolling terrain between the Roaring Fork River and Mount Sopris in the midvalley. An immensely popular mountain-bike network has evolved over the past decade or so and the Bureau of Land Management has designated the property a Recreation Special Management Area.

Pitkin County Open Space and Trails plans to build a new trail from one of its holdings, the Glassier property, to the boundary of federal land on the Crown. McLain said she and other wildlife advocates are concerned about potential consequences of additional trails in the area.

She is organizing a meeting of organizations and individuals interested in public lands issues to discuss wildlife and recreation. That includes the Emma, Wood Creek, Crystal Valley and Snowmass Caucuses, Pitkin County, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the U.S. Forest Service, BLM and the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association.

“The whole point is to make everybody a conservationist.”Gary TennenbaumAssistant director, Pitkin County Open Space and Trails

“What needs to be done is a meeting of the minds with everyone,” McLain said.

Seasonal closures targeted

McLain said she wants to see trails into the Crown off of Prince Creek Road closed longer in the spring to benefit wildlife — a proposal supported by John Groves, the longtime Carbondale district wildlife officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

The BLM closes trails on the Crown to motorized and mechanized uses from Dec. 1 to April 15. The Crown is winter range — one of the most important places in the Roaring Fork Valley for deer and elk to wait out the long winter months, according to Groves. Ungulates migrate off the Crown in the spring, but the high ground where they head is often still snowed in by mid-April, he said, so the animals don’t want to leave the Crown until later. When mountain biking and recreation use ramps up after April 15 via Prince Creek Road, it tends to drive deer and elk onto private land on the north side of the Crown, along Hooks Spur Road, according to Groves.

Heavy recreation use in the spring also interferes with the ability of does and cows to devote calories to develop their unborn fawns and calves, he said. They are coming off five months of “starvation diet,” he said. If they are burning calories by avoiding mountain bikers and other recreation users of the Crown, they have less time to devote to their developing young and may abort, he said.

“We’re already seeing declining populations,” Groves said. “A lot of that has been in the last 10 to 15 years.”

Not all is due to recreation. Development has eaten up some of the winter range, he said.

In a perfect world, Groves would like to see use of the Crown banned for all uses — including skiing and snowshoeing — during the winter, and he would like the spring closure extended to at least May 1.

“Summer use up there is not an issue to me on the Crown,” he said.

Groves said he isn’t against mountain biking as long as its done in appropriate places at appropriate times.

“We have to strike a balance between recreation and preserving wildlife habitat,” he said.

County extends closures

Groves credited Pitkin County Open Space and Trails for working with him to set the closure for the Glassier property for Dec. 1 through May 15.

Gary Tennenbaum, assistant director of the program, said Pitkin County has erred on the side of caution when setting seasonal closures. Other properties, such as Sky Mountain Park, are also closed through May 15 to make sure there’s no interference with winter range.

Trails also are placed so that large parts of open space properties remain intact.

“I think we go above and beyond,” Tennenbaum said.

Open space works with its wildlife consultants and state wildlife officers to set its closures. The program creates specific management plans for individual properties, but the program also is working on a general management philosophy. Its draft plan is available for review at -habitat-preservation-and-human -use.html and open for public comment through Friday.

McLain said many longtime valley residents and wildlife advocates are making their voices heard through the open space program’s comment process. They want the comment period extended so the broader community can discuss management issues. She is hoping to organize a meeting in July.

The Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association submitted comments in support of the draft policy. “This draft policy is supported by the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association due to it’s reliance on best available science to ensure that Open Space planning decisions are not based on the emotions and potential biases of the loudest voices in the room,” the association’s statement said.

Tennenbaum said the open space program hears from contingents on opposite ends of the spectrum on management. One contingent is opposed to trails and recreation on open space properties, he said. The other contingent feels too many restrictions exist and that the program should be dubbed “closed space” rather than open space.

BLM examined wildlife info

BLM spokesman David Boyd said the 2014 resource management plan for land it manages in the Colorado River Valley, including the Crown, was significantly oriented around wildlife habitat maps, “which were coordinated closely” with state wildlife officers. The Crown is neither summer range nor a calving area for elk, he said, citing the maps. The entire Roaring Fork Valley is summer range for mule deer.

The BLM plan acknowledges that the Crown is elk winter range and includes some areas of severe mule deer winter range.

“Our timing restrictions on mechanized and motorized vehicles (thru April 15) are designed to reduce disturbance on the winter range,” Boyd wrote in an email. He noted that the April 15 date is consistent across the BLM’s lands in the Colorado River Valley region.

Groves said an opening date for lower elevation property outside of Silt might not be optimal for higher elevation property such as the Crown. He would like to see an adjustment.

McLain said that is one goal of hers “The April 15 opening is just insane,” she said. “It hammers the wildlife badly.”

Tennenbaum said the issue doesn’t have to be recreation versus wildlife protection. He said he feels Pitkin County Open Space and Trails has melded the two.

“The whole point is to make everybody a conservationist,” Tennenbaum said.