Winter trail closure preserves ‘paradise’ |

Winter trail closure preserves ‘paradise’

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
While the picture isn't perfect, a stationary camera on a closed section of the Rio Grande Trail captured this rare image of two mountain lions on the prowl together one night last winter. (Courtesy Jonathan Lowsky/RFTA)

CARBONDALE ” A winter trail closure designed to preserve a secluded section of the Rio Grande Trail for deer, mountain lions and other critters is being obeyed by humans, a consultant for the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority concluded.

Wildlife biologist Jonathan Lowsky said he saw signs that only one person and two dogs violated the closure last winter on a two-mile stretch between Rock Bottom Ranch and Catherine Store Bridge, upvalley from Carbondale.

Meanwhile, the closed trail provides a “wildlife paradise,” Lowsky said, basing his assessment on tracks left by a multitude of species and images captured by a motion-sensitive, stationary camera along the trail.

The camera captured the rare image of two mountain lions prowling together during a March night. Lowsky said one of the big cats was on the move and blurred, so he couldn’t determine its gender. He said the two cats are either young males that were recently forced out on their own by their mother, or a mother and a youngster. Adult mountain lions are typically solitary animals, except when males and females have to put up with one another during breeding.

Lowsky also monitored winter trail use in 2006-07. He suspected there were big cats traveling the trail corridor, but the camera never caught them.

“The only new thing this year was the confirmation of the lions,” he said. “Their presence is indicative that there is plenty of prey for them.”

This year’s observations turned up a total of 14 different species of mammals. Winter hit hard in December after a mild fall. The trail corridor was heavily used by deer early in the winter, then they moved out when elk moved in throughout mid-winter, Lowsky said. As elk headed back into the surrounding hills, deer dominated again in late winter.

“Both species, when there was snow on the ground, used the corridor tremendously,” Lowsky said. The valuable habitat for deer and elk is at Rock Bottom Ranch on the eastern side of the trail closure, and on The Crown, public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management south of the trail. Roughly 100 elk wintered at Rock Bottom Ranch during the heart of the season, Lowsky said.

The deer and elk travel along the trail corridor while moving from those habitats. The camera stationed on the trail captured 15 elk in one frame on the night of Jan. 27.

Lowsky said he saw signs three times that a human ignored the trail closure. The tracks entered the close corridor from the east and traveled south onto The Crown.

He isn’t sure it was the same person but noted the tracks followed the same pattern each trip.

There were also photos of two dogs that ignored the closure, which is understandable considering that dogs don’t read. It appeared they entered from across the Roaring Fork River, Lowsky said.

The trail is closed from Dec. 1 until May 1.