On a tight leash
If users keep their dogs on leashes on the north Rim Trail, they can continue to bring their pets up there and a trail connecting the area to Sky Mountain Park will be built.
If they don’t, one or both of those things might not happen.
That’s the message that Animal Services officers want to send to people hiking, biking or otherwise recreating on the trail, located in the Upper North Mesa parcel. The Snowmass Village Town Council temporarily lifted a ban on dogs in order to test compliance with the leash law on the trail, and so far officers say most people are abiding by the rule, which is posted on numerous signs at the trailhead and first few hundred feet of the trail.
However, the officers are shooting for 100 percent compliance, which is what Pitkin County Open Space and Trails wants to see before it will move forward with construction of the Rimline Trail, which will connect the Upper North Mesa through the heart of Sky Mountain Park to the Brush Creek Trail. Sky Mountain Park is an amalgamation of parcels owned by the town, Pitkin County and the city of Aspen. The Rimline and other Sky Mountain Park trails will not allow dogs.
The reason for the dog prohibition in both parcels was to protect wildlife habitat. Keeping a dog on a leash significantly minimizes its impact, Officer Laurie Smith said.
“Let’s say you’re walking your dog,” Smith said. “The circle of influence of that dog is pretty much on the trail. But the minute you unhook him, his circle of influence might be 10 to 20 feet on either side of the trail, and that might be enough to just push the deer off, cause more stress on them. Maybe (dogs) flush a ground-nesting bird, and it’s young, and we would never even know it.”
Another reason for staying on the trail is to minimize the introduction of noxious weeds, which applies to all users, not just dogs. Noxious weeds are prolific feeders and can choke out the natural plant species, which in turn are also important food sources for wildlife, said Ted O’Brien, who recently was hired as parks and trails manager.
“Dogs, hiking boots, bike tires, … they all introduce seed from noxious weeds,” O’Brien said. “That’s why it’s important to stay on trail in these habitats so as to keep disturbance to the plant community to a minimal.”
The habitat zone in the parcel provides food sources and thick cover for a variety of animals, including elk, bear, birds of prey and nesting birds.
“Bear hit this zone hard, like in the fall, to build up fat reserves,” O’Brien said. “Elk use it in the winter because it’s just warm, sunny, dry habitat good for calving. And they’re all eating kind of the same thing.”
O’Brien added that sagebrush shrub-land ecosystems are endangered habitats because they are suitable for mountain development, such as housing or recreation.
“It’s one of those ecosystems that’s gotten pinched in the development boom here, and so that’s another big part of it — it’s just dwindling,” O’Brien said.
The officers also don’t want users creating “bandit” trails.
“We just don’t want people to do what they did on the Crown in Basalt because they just chop it all up,” Smith said. “They destroy the habitat not only for the big mammals but for the ground-nesting birds (and) the small mammals.”
The other purpose for enforcing the leash law is to open the door for construction of the Rimline and other trails. The trail system in the area winds into and out of property under various ownerships and land designations, which can have different regulations regarding dogs or otherwise, said Kelly Vaughn, town director of communication.
“If the town of Snowmass Village can be an active and productive partner in ensuring that these regulations are adhered to by the community, … this strong track record could be important as future trails are considered by various partners in areas within, surrounding or connecting with Snowmass Village,” Vaughn said.
“If we make that example out of this and make it shine that we all can work together, … when something else comes down the pipe one day — we really want to build a new trail in that Tom Blake zone — we can point to this,” O’Brien said. “That’s going to be easier to push future projects through.”
Other trails pending for Sky Mountain Park include Airline, which would connect the Owl Creek and Skyline Ridge trails, and the Cozy Line, joining Brush Creek Trail to Skyline Ridge and the intercept lot on Highway 82, according to O’Brien. Another link between the Highline and Viewline trails is planned for 2014 to provide alternate ascending and descending routes.
“It’s up to us to show that we’re going to make an effort,” O’Brien said. “If we do, then we get more trail. It’s all just going to bring it together, and we all will thoroughly enjoy that trail system.”
Not good enough
For some people, that is not as much of an incentive. The Upper North Mesa was closed to dogs based on a restriction in the planned-unit development for the Horse Ranch neighborhood that is meant to protect wildlife habitat, but the restriction was never enforced until former Public Works Director Hunt Walker discovered it while researching the property.
To Peter and Adele Plantec, residents of Horse Ranch who were among the many voices campaigning to lift the prohibition, the compromise is not satisfactory.
“We don’t walk it anymore, which is a real shame because I’m not going to walk with my dog on a leash,” Peter Plantec said. “My dog is very well-behaved and will not pull, but he’s miserable, and so am I. We want them to be able to run up and down the trail, greet the other dogs.”
The Plantecs, who said they have been walking their dogs without leashes on the north Rim Trail for 25 years, don’t believe dogs have had a negative impact on wildlife there.
“This is all made up by bikers and people who don’t have dogs, and there are plenty of studies to show that dogs are more aggressive on leash,” Peter Plantec said.
O’Brien did say that another reason for the rule was to avoid user conflicts.
“I’d rather be able to walk my dog,” Peter Plantec said. “It’s not important to me at all that they connect to that trail system (Sky Mountain Park). Nobody I know in their right mind is going to go up on that baking plateau.”
The council agreed on the temporary moratorium for the ban in order to test compliance with a leash law before amending the planned unit development. If it isn’t followed, the officials could choose to end the moratorium and return to enforcing the planned unit development.
“It’s unfortunate because a lot of folks that walk their dogs up here, their dogs are probably great dogs, and they stay on heel, but you have to have … a consistent law,” O’Brien said.
For Smith, it’s a balancing act between recreation and conservation.
“If our dogs flush the small ground mammals, we may not have goshawks in here, and to be running through and be able to see a wildlife-sensitive species like a goshawk, that’s something that is very valuable,” Smith said. “We need somehow to make people understand that they need to balance recreational pressure with allowing your children to see elk in the future.”
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