Guest commentary: Redstone-McClure trail will erode bird habitat

Mary Harris/Guest commentary

The mission of Roaring Fork Audubon (RFA) is to speak for our wildlife that has no voice, especially our birds. RFA and our 850-plus members support Alternative 1 — the no-action alternative concerning the proposed Redstone to McClure Pass trail.

Habitat required by our native birds and other wildlife is slowly being paved, improved and developed, especially in the valley floors where the majority breeds. Most of these birds are in decline; some are in steep decline. In the past 60 years, more than one-third of our birds have been lost. The largest cause of this dramatic decrease is loss or alteration of habitat, much in the name of recreation.

A common misconception is that if a bird’s habitat is impacted by trail development, the bird will fly to an adjacent area to breed, roost and feed. Birds heavily dispute and defend their territories in winter and breeding season and, with habitat loss, this leaves many birds with nowhere to relocate, breed and survive. Suitable habitat becomes more scarce as recreation is honored over conservation.

If we don’t vigorously guard prime habitat for all of our birds, those in steep decline will not recover, and others will continue to diminish.

Considering habitat loss due to human development and climate change, the greatest threats to our waning bird populations are indifference and lack of education.

RFA’s goal is to overcome indifference by raising awareness of our birds’ plight and providing education about the risk of losing what we do not protect.

We have conducted surveys along the Crystal River corridor, including the trail toward McClure Pass, which is rich in regrowth and abundant with native bird life, elk, bear, butterflies and small mammals. Most of the trail is narrow and quiet and has little impact on the habitat with breeding birds in close proximity. Developing this narrow trail to accommodate bikers and hikers would eliminate breeding habitat up to 3 feet on each side. Bike traffic would affect another 50 meters on each side of the trail and cause an incalculable number of nests lost. There is much scientific evidence documenting that heavily used trails negatively affect bird nesting habitat.

As recreational development pressures mount, this short, narrow trail section becomes more important for wildlife, especially for birds that return to the same patch from as far away as Central America to breed where they have been successful.

RFA’s surveys document an abundance of bird species including 23 that are represented on conservation concern watch lists.

Although Coloradans hold widely divergent ideals about wildlife, the majority values animal welfare and wildlife conservation and protection. Most also embrace a conservation ethic that prioritizes the ecological health of the entire community of life. Many do not realize the importance of protecting seemingly insignificant sections of habitat and how they are connected. This piecemeal type of development causes harm to wildlife and triggers loss of breeding habitat, sending a cumulative impact like ripples in a pond affecting all the species sharing this precious corridor.

Habitat preservation is what conservation organizations and environmentally trained government agencies must work on to ensure that people realize their impacts have consequences. RFA has worked closely with the Forest Service on other projects and would enjoy collaborating on this.

Once people realize the importance of protecting diminishing wildlife habitat, we believe they will support a trail that skirts the highway corridor rather than destroys existing habitat. The proposed trail will cause loss of wildlife and be one more place where quiet strolls to enjoy wildlife are not available to most citizens of our valley.

Mary Harris is chair of the Roaring Fork Audubon Society.

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