Forest Service wrong to abandon elk herd |

Forest Service wrong to abandon elk herd

John Seidel

As a biologist for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, I first started looking at what we called the Snowmass elk herd in 1974. I conducted elk-calving research with Allen Whitaker, the district officer in Aspen at the time; we advanced the thesis that elk returned to the same area to bear their calves.

We documented this behavior in the Burnt Mountain area. At the time, elk used most of the Snowmass basin but chose the east side of Burnt Mountain for calving. I hunted elk with a bow and arrow on Fanny Hill in the early days. As more and more construction occurred in Snowmass and the trails were widened and the trees were thinned, the elk started to avoid the opened areas on the slopes.

Since those days there has been a lot of time and money spent on protecting what is left of this elk herd, now referred to as the Burnt Mountain elk herd, because that’s the only area they have left. With the protected habitat of Seven Star, Owl Creek and the Horse Ranch, there is a workable migration corridor that allows these animals to move from winter ranges to summer ranges. Most of this mitigation and protection has occurred on private lands.

Historically and currently, the Forest Service has made the protection and enhancement of wildlife habitats a low priority in its rush to provide opportunities for interest groups to profit from federal lands. Even in this intensively managed example, you choose to again support development and activities incompatible with the little remaining wildlife.

I suppose I should blame myself for some of this oversight. I reviewed the input into the record of decision completed in 1994. I obviously didn’t pay enough attention to a short sentence in a 300-page document. Twelve years later, who would recognize that the sentence “the Cafe Suzanne facility will serve as the primary staging area for summer activities” would mean concerts, mountain bike trails, gondolas and 2,800 people an hour.

This is just another angle proposed by greedy people to make more of what they already have ” plenty of money.

Beginner area: You’re wiping out acres of trees, widening an already 70-foot [wide] trail to accommodate a beginner’s area. Yet any expert skier wanting to get to the upper Elk Camp lifts or to Cafe Suzanne will be coming right through your ski classes. The new bypass will only be used at the end of the day for the trip down. Or they can take the gondola.

The 25 percent increase in snowmaking will certainly make a bad situation worse as it relates to stream flows. The minimum stream flows for Snowmass Creek were already diminished prior to the 1994 agreement by bad judgment and weak compromises. The original recommendation from the field measurements was 12 cubic feet per second for Snowmass Creek. This was politically reduced by Skico lawyers and Denver bureaucrats to 8 cfs so they could make snow. With global warming it won’t matter how much snow they make, there won’t be enough to ski to the new base village by the time it gets built.

Increased summer use with the proposed activities of concerts, mountain biking and hiking will increase the disturbance to this last remaining habitat. Mountain bikers and hikers will take the Elk Camp lift to “see the view” and quickly surmise that they can walk or ride back to Aspen by heading east down the ridge and across a small saddle and down the slopes at Buttermilk. There are supposed to be “rangers” to protect this area and prevent intrusion into Burnt Mountain. The Forest Service has a very lousy history of preventing bikers, hikers and jeepers from going where they want to go.

All this activity I believe will have a negative effect on an already stressed habitat. My main objection is that the Forest Service has been willing to sacrifice this herd to the ski gods since Bill Janns showed up.

During some of the initial investigations, the state Division of Wildlife had to pay out of pocket to have the federal Forest Service elk expert Jack Ward Thomas fly down and refute the gonzo-biology that was being offered up by the Skico biologist. This was my first exposure to “shopping for science.” Even then local rangers were reticent to limit the ski company development and access to Burnt Mountain and its elk habitat.

This continued onslaught should be resisted by the Forest Service but under the current administration there is little hope of that.

Please listen to your heart and do what you know is right. Keep the activities where they have already trashed the area. Let them enjoy the new base village up close.

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