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Seasonal Closures Keep People Off Trails, But Provide A Refuge For Elk

Aspen Public Radio
Elk, like this herd in the Glassier Open Space near Basalt, spend the late winter at low elevations where they can find food and raise calves.

The snow is melting, the days are getting longer, and skis are getting shelved in favor of hiking boots and mountain bikes. But in some parts of Colorado, hikers and bikers will have to wait a little longer to venture out on certain trails.

The snow is melting, the days are getting longer, and skis are getting shelved in favor of hiking boots and mountain bikes. But in some parts of the Roaring Fork Valley, hikers and bikers will have to wait a little longer to venture out on certain trails.

Those trails are closed to protect herds of elk, which rely on low-elevation open spaces for their survival around this time of year. Closures keep people and their pets from spooking elk and pushing them away from pivotal grazing areas.

Wintertime survival at more than a mile above sea level is no small feat for animals. When things get cold, finding food is a challenge.

"Winter is a cruel period for any animal on the landscape," said Matt Yamashita, area wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. "Deer and elk are slowly starving to death, and they're trying to do it just at a rate that they can make up for the next spring."

Credit Aspen Public Radio
Rick Norman, a ranger with Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, spots a distant herd of elk at the Glassier Open Space. He issues citations to people who violate seasonal closures.

Because it's so hard for elk to find food, Yamashita said they need every advantage they can get to stay nourished in the harsh, unforgiving winter. There isn't much food at higher elevations under the snow, so they venture lower, where it's easier to find plants to graze on. And because the pickings are slim, scaring them away from a reliable food source is harmful.

"We want to ensure that they're not burning extra calories by running around constantly trying to flee from people and that they've got some reserves going into the spring months," Yamashita said.

In addition to staying fed, the late winter is when elk give birth. Mothers know the best place to raise their calves, but have to leave those places if they feel threatened by hikers and bikers passing by.

"They're specifically seeking out those areas because they're optimal for raising a brand new baby," Yamashita said. "If they're avoiding that area, if they're having to move to less optimal habitat, it just decreases the chance that the new little one is going to be able to survive and be recruited into the herd."

He added that elk could be scared away by even a small amount of human traffic nearby. On top of that, trail users who bring dogs into elk habitat may be exacerbating the likelihood of scaring elk, which are naturally inclined to fear canine predators.

Delia Malone, an ecologist who chairs the Roaring Fork Valley branch of the Sierra Club, said wildlife will pick up on humans from far away.

"That impact radiates at least 50 meters on either side of us," she said. "So when we're out walking on a trail, even if we're being quiet, the elk and the birds and the lions and the foxes, they all know we're there and they try to avoid us. We are a disturbance factor."

Because ecosystems are such a delicate, interconnected web of living things, mitigating human impact goes far beyond just helping elk.

"If you manage elk sustainably and appropriately, they can actually stimulate the growth of vegetation, which supplies the habitat for birds. And that habitat, that vegetation protects streams and those streams protect fish, and those fish are eaten by osprey and on and on it goes."

Even though humans have already had a tremendous impact on the natural world, something as seemingly small as staying off seasonally-closed trails can make a big difference for the animals that live there.

"Yes, we have trailed and roaded and housed the landscape, but there still are some really important places," Malone said. "If we can protect those important places, particularly during the reproductive season, it's not small potatoes. It's really important."

Credit Aspen Public Radio
Ecologists say sustainable management of elk has a positive ripple effect throughout the rest of the ecosystem. Although human development and infrastructure has already shaped the natural world, targeted closures can protect pivotal feeding and calving areas that remain.

As humans attitudes toward development and conservation have ebbed and flowed over the decades, so too has the impact of human settlement on elk populations. In Colorado, they were hunted out of existence by the 1920s, then later reintroduced using elk from Yellowstone National Park.

While expansion and development - both in mining, ranching, and recreation - have impacted habitats, Malone said, the evolution of widespread conservation practices have helped elk populations to survive and thrive.

While climate change and local population growth are inherently affecting the way animals live and move in human-dominated areas, the people who design and implement seasonal closures factor that into their decisions.

"Things are changing, but the more predictable we can make the human activity on natural areas, the wildlife can then adapt to moving around those predictable human patterns," said Liza Mitchell, ecologist and natural resource planner for Pitkin County Open Space and Trails.

That agency dishes out $100 fines to those who are caught violating trail closures. Mitchell said compliance has gone "pretty well," and described improving compliance over time, which she ascribes to education efforts for trail users. She added that violations in her jurisdiction are less frequent than some other parts of the state.

Like many decisions for those who manage natural areas, Mitchell's strategy for seasonal closures is the result of a balancing act meant to appease a variety of stakeholders.

"It is our job to sort of sift through all those and prioritize and see how we can meet the most demands from the most people," she said. "So when I think about seasonal closures, that's one way that we can meet those multiple demands on the same parcel of land."

Julie Hardman, a mountain biker who serves on the board of the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association, said the late-winter waiting game can be tough.

"We're all anxious to get out there on the trails," she said. "It's difficult to be like, 'Oh, you know, we have to wait another month or two to get out there.' I think we all have to kind of have the patience to wait until the proper time."

Hardman also urged other bikers to stay away from the closed trails.

"There are a lot of great trails still open. I know in the past we've had people poaching the trails and walking with their dogs and feeling like there's limited impact. Even what we find to be limited and not as impactful - even if you don't see an elk - it still affects the environment and those animals. So we just need to be really cautious of that."

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Mark Duggan provided online production of this story for KSUT.

This story was written in partnership with Aspen Public Radio, through a collaboration powered by COLab, the Colorado News Collaborative — a nonprofit formed to strengthen local public-service journalism in Colorado. KSUT joined this historic collaboration with more than 40 news organizations to share in-depth local reporting to better serve Coloradans.

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