Elk decline marked by our footprints
It’s ironic (and sad) that Thursday’s Aspen Times’ headline story (“Golden honor”) was a congratulatory piece on trails development locally, while, buried at the bottom of the front page is a tiny reference to a piece in the Times Weekly covering one of the unintended consequences of all these new trails: the precipitous decline of our local big game populations.
Since 2000 the combined elk population of the Eagle and Roaring Fork valleys has plummeted from 20,000 head to under 10,000. The factors that have driven this are many, but the most glaringly obvious and the one with the greatest statistical relationship to the drop in game numbers is the construction of new trails through previously “clear” swaths of public land.
Big game require large uninterrupted areas to birth and raise their young. Elk react to any disruption to their feeding, nursing, and resting. They’re prey animals. Their only defense is flight or hiding. A plethora of excellent peer-reviewed studies has documented the flight response that elk have to a variety of disruptions. The studies document the effects of different kinds of disturbances.
I am not about to get into the blame game. We are all responsible. My two-hour dog walks up on Basalt Mountain are detrimental. So are equestrians. So are ATVs. So are dirt bikes. So are mountain bikes. So are trail runners.
The major difference is that I’ll cover maybe 3 miles in that two-hour time frame. All these other activities cover anywhere from 50% more (equestrians) to more than double my mileage (motorized and mountain bike). In those greater distances covered are equally greater numbers of disturbed animals.
It’s time we considered the welfare of our animal neighbors before creating more playgrounds for ourselves.
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