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Roadless areas vital to hunting

Mike Murphy and Dennis Buechler

As the temperature dropped and golden leaves crunched beneath our feet this fall, many Colorado hunters headed for the wilds, hiking along mountain slopes with a rifle or bow in hand in search of our state’s prized elk, mule deer and other wildlife. But as we savored Colorado’s outdoors and celebrated our hunting tradition, many sportsmen and sportswomen had something gnawing at the back of their minds – the future of roadless lands on our national forests. A special, bipartisan task force was recently appointed by Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and the state Legislature. This task force has been charged with making recommendations about whether to protect Colorado’s last roadless forests. The task force will hold public meetings across the state to gather residents’ input about roadless areas throughout Colorado’s national forests. Big-game hunters have a big stake in whether forests remain protected. Building new roads into our national forests would reduce habitat security for elk and mule deer and, in the long run, reduce hunter opportunity. Protecting Colorado’s forests, water and wildlife is important to ensuring that future generations of hunters enjoy the opportunities that we now have in Colorado’s national forests. Wildlife biologists, who have studied the impacts of cutting new roads on pristine lands, have found increased big game mortality during the hunting season, drastically reducing the average age of males in the herd and decreasing male-to-female ratios. Such trends reduce the vitality of big-game herds. In worst-case scenarios, wildlife officials could be forced to cut back on hunting opportunities in order to protect elk and mule deer populations. The end result could be shorter hunting seasons, a reduced number of limited entry permits and more antler-type restrictions (such as brow-tyne restrictions) attached to the permits. The most famous example of road-building in pristine areas leading to reduced hunting opportunities involves the Targhee National Forest just west of Yellowstone National Park. When the area suffered an inordinate amount of road-building, Idaho wildlife officials were forced to reduce the elk hunting season from 44 to five days.Clever opponents of roadless land protection might argue that new roads provide hunters with more opportunity. They might say that the new roads provide easy access to areas that were previously too hard to get to. The truth of the matter is that we already have good access. More than 94 percent of Colorado’s roadless areas are within two miles of a road. We need to maintain quality habitat for wildlife populations, and more roads won’t do that. A study in western Montana showed that, as the amount of roads increased, hunter harvest of mature bull elk increased as well, but only for a short time. After a few years, the number of mature bull elk harvested dropped dramatically. Biologists in the area surmise that the drop was due to the fact that there were few, if any, mature bull elk left in the area. They had either been harvested during previous hunting seasons or left the area because of its low habitat security.In fact, a Journal of Forestry article reported that two miles of road per square mile can cut elk populations in half. Six miles of roads per square mile can nearly destroy an entire elk population. Just imagine what would happen to big-game populations to our last remaining roadless areas if new roads crisscross critical habitat.Most sportsmen and sportswomen understand this. A poll conducted in 2000 by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Alliance found that 83 percent of hunters polled supported efforts to keep the remaining roadless areas in national forests the way they are. It’s time for hunters to stand front and center on this issue. The task force needs to be told, and told often, that many of our cherished elk and mule deer herds depend on roadless lands, as do other wildlife such as black bear and mountain lion. I urge all big-game hunters to attend upcoming meetings when they come to your area and urge the Colorado Roadless Area Task Force to protect our hunting opportunities and the opportunities of our children and grandchildren. Regardless of whether you are able to attend the meetings and testify about the special places you visit, please write the task force. Its members are looking for specific recommendations on roadless areas you have visited and that you deem important to protect. It is accepting e-mail comments on its website, http://www.keystone.org/html/roadless_areas_task_force.html, or you can write to the task force at the Keystone Center, Attention: Roadless Areas Review, 1628 Sts. John Road, Keystone, CO 80435. To learn when and where the Task Force will be in you area, follow the website referenced above. Mike Murphy is the owner of T Bar M Outfitters in Durango, and Dennis Buechler is with the Colorado Wildlife Federation in Centennial.


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