Wildlife will benefit from forest habitat project | AspenTimes.com

Wildlife will benefit from forest habitat project

Scott CondonThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO, Colorado

ASPEN – Deer, elk, bighorn sheep and other wildlife will get a boost from a 10-year project that state and federal officials say is unprecedented in the Roaring Fork Valley.The U.S. Forest Service is going to revitalize winter range on 45,600 acres of the White River National Forest. Most of the work will be done in areas surrounding Aspen, Basalt and Carbondale. A small amount will occur in Glenwood Canyon.White River National Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said it’s rare that the agency is able to plan a habitat improvement project of this scale. It’s necessary, he said, because “We’ve removed fire” as a factor in maintaining habitat. As a result, sections of aspen forests, oak brush and other browsing vegetation provide limited value to big game.”Maybe to the untrained eye it doesn’t look bad or degraded,” Fitzwilliams said, but biologists and wildlife experts have found otherwise.Kevin Wright, district wildlife manager in the Aspen area for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, said the problem is particularly bad in winter range – areas deer, elk and bighorn sheep depend on to survive the cold, snowy weather. The vegetation is overbrowsed, and it provides limited nutritional value.There is a healthy elk population in the Roaring Fork Valley, but there are signs of trouble, Wright said. There are roughly 35 calves born per 100 cows; the rate should be about 48 to 52 calves per 100 cows, he said. Degraded habitat likely plays a role in that reduced birth rate, Wright said.Fitzwilliams said the Forest Service needed to look at a project on a broad scale to make a significant difference for wildlife. Winter range on public lands is increasingly important because of the development of private lands in the valley, he said.The agency will use prescribed fire in some areas, mechanical treatment by hand crews or with machines called hydroaxes in other areas, and a blend of the two methods elsewhere. Fitzwilliams likened the hydroaxe to “a lawnmower on steroids.”The first phases are expected to be undertaken late this summer and early in the fall. About 200 acres of oak brush, and pinion and juniper trees will be thinned in the Avalanche Creek area, east of Filoha Meadows in the Crystal River Valley. That project will improve habitat for bighorn sheep.Another part of the first phase will be treatment on Arbaney Mesa, about a half-mile east of the summit of the popular Arbaney-Kittle Trail at Holland Hills. That will benefit primarily deer, Wright said.Budget figures weren’t immediately available from the Forest Service. The state Wildlife Division will provide funding. The Forest Service will also seek grants from sportsman’s groups like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Fitzwilliams said.Roughly 50 percent of the 46,500-acre project will use prescribed fire to rejuvenate habitat, according to wildlife biologist Phil Nyland, project leader for the Forest Service. Another 40 percent will use a blend of fire and mechanical treatment, he said. The balance will be mechanical treatment.Fitzwilliams said the Forest Service must crank up the education effort about the need and benefits of the project because there will be effects on humans, from visual changes to smoke in the air.Fitzwilliams said he anticipates a reaction along the lines of: “Why are you setting fire when Smokey Bear says don’t do that?”The Forest Service must set fires within a short window when wet conditions help prevent a fire from spreading but also when targeted vegetation is dry enough to burn. The agency also must carefully plan how the smoke will affect the valley.”The smoke management is one of the biggest things,” he said.More information on the project is available at http://www.fs.usda.gov/whiteriver. Navigate to “Land & Resource Management” and then to “Projects.”scondon@aspentimes.com

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